Los Angeles Theater Review: ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER (East West Players)

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by Tony Frankel on September 13, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Recently divorced, and abandoned by her beloved three-legged dog, well-respected origami artist Ilana has fortified herself in her studio. Surrounded by paper, Chinese take-out boxes, and a giant, hovering origami hawk, the dejected, worn-down, and corrosive Ilana will be coaxed back to life by high school teacher Andy—a goofy, kindhearted, and energetic admirer—and his hip-hop student prodigy Suresh, who soon becomes Ilana’s protégé.

Tess Lina as troubled origami expert Ilana in ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER at East West Players.

On the surface, Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper is a quirky, comical, and melancholic portrait of three injured people who converge out of their shared fascination with the Japanese art of origami. Joseph’s research on folded paper is thorough, but while we are thankfully not burdened with the intricacies of folding techniques, origami is overtly used as symbolism. Some of the metaphors are shoehorned awkwardly into the plot, like when Suresh makes an origami sculpture the exact size of the human heart. And while Joseph balances between credible chitchat and stylish imagery in this Los Angeles premiere, the skillful situational humor is too TV, lacking the poetry and elegance needed to elevate the material.

CS Lee as high school teacher and origami enthusiast Andy in ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER at East West Players.

By the end of the first act, we know nothing more about Ilana than her situation. Unfortunately, Tess Lina, who warms up in the second act, gives an embittered one-note portrayal in the first that makes us wonder why the nerdy calculus teacher is so taken with her. C.S. Lee is certainly enjoyable as the optimistic, cuddly teacher—part Buddha and part excitable child—but director Jennifer Chang misses too many opportunities for character humor in both Andy and Ilana. The likeable Kapil Talkwalkar mines some humor as Suresh, but the straightforward direction leaves him floundering. I could see this play as a truly diverting and even profound event were the portrayals given more depth.

Ilana (Tess Lina) meets brilliant but awkward student Suresh (Kapil Talkwalkar) in ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER at East West Players.

The short, tinkling piano music that occurs in moments of revelation are even more manipulative than the metaphors, telling us what to feel and when. The director obviously sees the need to indicate rather than let the story play out. This is not to say the evening lacks charm and engagement, but I wish East West Players’ version had been as artfully crafted as the amazing displays of origami hanging on the theater walls. Like paper turned into origami, this oddly designed production (with a Nagasaki bridge looming inside Ilana’s studio) has been lovingly folded, but the finished product only looks good from certain angles.

Andy (CS Lee) reaches out to Ilana (Tess Lina) over dinner in ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER at East West Players.

photos by Michael Lamont

Andy (CS Lee, center) welcomes Ilana (Tess Lina) and Suresh (Kapil Talwalkar) back from an origami conference in Japan in ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER at East West Players.

Animals Out of Paper
East West Players
David Henry Hwang Theater
120 Judge John Aiso Street
scheduled to end on October 5, 2014
for tickets, call (213) 625-7000 or visit www.EastWestPlayers.org

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