All creatures great and small

Darwinian dream: Nicole Silver rehearses for Animalia, a theatrical production inspired by poetry, evolution, and circus arts. Photo by Shara Crosby
Darwinian dream: Nicole Silver rehearses for Animalia, a theatrical production inspired by poetry, evolution, and circus arts. Photo by Shara Crosby

The Fox & Beggar Theater debuts with surreal circus experience Animalia

“He breathes in the wet dawn through / his mottled skin, soaks in its vitality / until his old heart thumps with delight / and he jumps off his bed of lettuce leaves / and moss hairs / into the ruddy mud.” So goes a passage from “Amphibia,” a poem in the series The Galapagos Nocturnes, which serves as the loose structure for Animalia: A Zoological Circus for the Stage. The show opens Friday, April 18, and runs for two weekends at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre in Montford.

It’s a lot to process, but, according to writer/director/visionary Nat Allister, the production is more about an otherworldly immersion than a concrete storyline. Allister formed The Fox & Beggar Theater about a year ago as a vehicle for his project Tarocco, whose 21 acts are based on a Renaissance-era tarot card deck. After two promo shows staged to build support for that large-scale production, Allister realized that Tarocco would take three hours to perform and about $50,000 to produce, so he turned to a simpler concept for the theater company’s debut.

Not that Animalia is simple. The Galapagos Nocturnes (published by Gold Wake Press in 2010) “came from back when I was a creative-writing student,” says Allister, who attended Vassar College. “The main character is Charles Darwin, and he’s dreaming, over six nights, of the different classes of animals.” The poems’ format relates to the creation story in Genesis, replacing God’s handiwork with the process of evolution.

Animals do make an appearance in Animalia: an actor portrays a luna moth, and there are giant bull puppets. But generally the costumes evoke the various animal classes “in a stylized way,” says Allister: less fable, more dreamscape, à la Cirque du Soleil, one of the director’s major influences.

As the show’s full title suggests, Allister does incorporate the circus arts — aerialists, fire spinners, stilt walkers and jugglers — “but the choreography is wicked tight,” he says. “It’s more like a modern dance.”

One goal was to create a darker, more surreal sort of show that, while still appropriate for all ages, would help the theater scene link up with other facets of local culture. “The major themes in Asheville that have a presence among the young and hip culture all seem to overlap,” says Allister. “The people interested in primitive skills and farming naturally overlap with the music scene, which overlaps with New Age and spiritual life, which overlaps with installation art and the studio art world.”

But local theater, he continues, “isn’t really a part of that so much. It’s got its own community.” The self-described “huge theater geek” says he wanted to attract those other circles to dramatics. “For the younger group, it’s showing them how awesome it can be to go to a play, and for the regular theatergoing crowd, I want to show them how amazing some of the circus performers and some of the more radical and edgy artists are when they’re working toward a more out-of-the box vision of the stage.”

To achieve all this required collaboration on a grand scale: Animalia boasts a cast and crew numbering more than 100. “I’ve always been superinterested in being a [catalyst] for all of these performers and artists I love to get a chance to work together,” says Allister. “I’m just trying to showcase spectacular talent and package it as impressively as possible.”

As the vision of Animalia grows onstage, the production is expanding offstage, too. While the show begins at 8:30 p.m., a street fair corridor between the parking lot and amphitheater — complete with art, artists and sideshow acts — opens at 7 p.m.

WHAT: Animalia: A Zoological Circus for the Stage
foxandbeggar.com
WHERE: Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, April 18-19 and 25-26.
Street fair at 7 p.m., show at 8:30 p.m.
Suggested donation: $12-$25

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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