IMAGE: Suresh (Utkarsh Rajawat) and Ilana (Momo Nakamura) in Animals Out of Paper. Photo by Harvey Levine.
REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
Animals Out of Paper, running at Silver Spring Stage through March 12, is a contemporary comedy-drama with just three characters.
There’s Ilana (Momo Nakamura), a successful artist in origami, the ancient art of folding paper into intricate shapes, including animals.
She is a prestigious author, maintains a downtown studio, and has been commissioned to design a mesh insert, based on origami principles, for use in heart surgery.
Andy (Rob Gorman) and Ilana (Momo Nakamura). Photo by Harvey Levine.
So you’d think Ilana is in a really good place, right? Well, no: she has split up with her husband, is living (only temporarily, she insists) in her studio, sleeping on a couch and subsisting on take-out Szechuan beef.
Worst of all, her deaf, three-legged dog has wandered off; since his disappearance, she, the world-class origami artist, hasn’t folded a single sheet of paper.
Into Ilana’s funk comes Andy, from the American Origami Society, to collect Ilana’s overdue $25 annual dues. A high school calculus teacher and amateur origami artist, Andy declares himself a huge fan of Ilana’s. He enthuses that he has read her book, Folding What I Lost, two hundred times, and has given it an entry in his list of blessings (#5848 out of a total – so far – of 9771), which he has kept since the age of twelve in a diary-sized book.
But eventually Andy gets to the real point of his visit: asking Ilana if she would agree to tutor one of his high school students in origami. Andy describes the student, Suresh, as outrageously precocious, with incredible visualization skills. Suresh has taken up origami and is doing some amazingly creative work.’
Andy (Rob Gorman). Photo by Harvey Levine.
Ilana protests that she doesn’t do tutoring, but the relentlessly optimistic Andy produces samples of Suresh’s origami. Astonished by the quality of the work, she agrees to take Suresh on as a student.
As Andy leaves, he drops his diary, which Ilana finds and reads – all 9771 blessings, an astonishing number of which mention her. She begins to understand him as perhaps a too ardent admirer, but also as a sad person, making the most of what little life has offered him.
In scene 2, Suresh shows up at Ilana’s studio – the consummate brilliant, moody, quirky student. Surveying the studio/apartment, he pronounces it “crazy,” sits on furniture that is not meant to be sat on, criticizes her origami and, in short, provides Ilana with every possible excuse for throwing him out.
But she doesn’t.
She accepts his offer to listen to music and puts on his headphones. She shows him the medical design project and asks him how he would approach it. They clash; she criticizes his attitude; they compare their approaches to folding recount parts of their life stories, especially their losses: her dog, his mother. They exchange fist bumps. Is there bonding going on here? You’ve got it.
Suresh (Utkarsh Rajawat). Photo by Harvey Levine.
The story – which is really Ilana’s – progresses along parallel, but very different, lines. On the conventional side, Andy courts Ilana and impetuously asks her to marry him; she protests that she isn’t even divorced yet, but she doesn’t say no. Making the best of everything, as usual, Andy takes the non-denial as his latest blessing and writes in his diary.
Meanwhile, Ilana’s tutoring of Suresh proceeds along much less conventional – and much more dangerous – lines. They travel together to an international origami conference in Nagasaki, Japan – she the distinguished guest, he the accompanying protégé. But a disastrously misunderstood romantic encounter in Ilana’s Nagasaki hotel room sends their relationship tumbling into chaos, and they make their separate ways back home.
Eventually, the three meet in Ilana’s studio for the inevitable confrontation over Ilana’s emotional allegiance.
In the end, both men leave Ilana, Andy having encountered brutal disillusionment, Suresh having acquired some understanding of what blessings are and the need to count them. Ilana is left to herself, as she began, sitting on her sofa/bed, an unfolded piece of paper in her hands.
Ilana (Momo Nakamura). Photo by Harvey Levine.
That’s the story. Is there potential for stereotypes: a tormented artist; a brilliant, quirky student; a classic triangle? You bet.
Does this production fall into the trap? Mostly not. Why not? Skillful direction, solid performances.
Every member of the three-person cast is effective. Director Brandon Rashad Butts has established an efficient pace and brisk transitions. The collective stamina and skill of the cast make you forget what a massive acting challenge Rajiv Joseph’s script represents.
Momo Nakamura’s word-weary cynicism as Ilana, and Utkarsh Rajawat’s quirky brilliance as Suresh, are moving and convincing, but special credit goes to Rob Gorman for turning what could have been a good-hearted schmuck into a believably positive soul. His Andy endures a ton of gratuitous bad treatment, soldiers on with unabated optimism, yet has the mettle to walk away, dinged up but essentially intact, when that’s all that’s left to do.
Also worth noting are Jim Robertson’s lighting and Daniel Berkowitz’s projections, which enhance the story effectively without taking over.
One cautionary note: some of the language is seriously blue, so don’t bring the kids.
Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph; directed by Brandon Rashad Butts; produced by Star Johnson; set by Shelton Hall and Paris Brown; costumes by Mika Eubanks; lighting by Jim Robertson; sound by Clayton Jesse Fujimura; projections by Daniel Berkowitz. At Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Through March 12. Running time: 2 hrs (15 min intermission).
Cast: Rob Gorman, Momo Nakamura, Utkarsh Rajawat