BIG SCARY ANIMALS Tackles Big Scary Topics at Theater Three


Have you ever been to Oaklawn and thought to yourself, I just LOVE rainbows! If so, you already have something in common with one of Matt Lyle’s characters Big Scary Animals. The original performance of this play was in 2017 under the title Cedar Springs or Big Scary Animalsand to suit the changes of our messy, magnificent world, Lyle adapted the original to become what I had the privilege of seeing on Sunday-Big Scary Animals. (You can read more about those changes directly from the playwright.)

Dialogue was undeniably the focal point of the performance, and Jeffrey Schmidt’s brilliant scenic design was the perfect backdrop for the intense, intimate conversations happening in this play. The stage was set up with a kitchen and a living room space where characters could move freely, but rather than requiring the audience to fill the gaps of when the characters are in each home, there was a designed crack that split the home in two. On the left of the crack was the home of Oaklawn’s newest, and arguably most naive, residents; on the right was the home of Oaklawn loyalists who love and live the spirit of the area. The beautiful, bold design of the split between the two homes was representative of the divisiveness of the characters, and the spaces on either side of the jagged crack were used in isolation and simultaneously, sometimes giving us a chance to watch the characters exist and operate. in their own spaces at the same time.

Adding to the emphasis of the large, colorful split between the two homes, was Jacob Hughes’s lighting design. The way the audience’s attention was guided by light was fascinating. There was one moment when four of the characters were sitting on the couch-a couch that has a “couch condom” on the left and is hilariously almost white on the right-but they are operating in their separate spaces, being entirely vulnerable because they are in the company of their trusted spouses in the comfort of their own homes. As one couple spoke-or rather, shouted-light illuminated them, and then the light would cease, switching to illuminate the couple on the other side of the couch. I was in awe of this use of light, and being able to watch these couples interact, physically side-by-side but mentally and emotionally separate, was perfectly painful, just like the many moments throughout the rest of the play.

These vulnerable and vivacious interactions were convincing as a result of passionate acting. The Oaklwan veterans, Marcus and Clark, were our first hosts of the evening, serving wine, dessert, and realizations. Bradley Atuba gave an enlightening performance as Marcus, visualizing the physical and emotional restraint it takes to try to absorb good intentions but address microaggressions on a daily basis. There were moments when I could see Atuba’s body shaking and hear his voice seething, despite the words coming out of his mouth being forcibly pleasant. Chad Cline played Marcus’s husband, Clark, the self-proclaimed “wife” of the couple and a constant source of comedic relief throughout the performance. Cline’s intonation and movements were light-hearted in nature, but his portrayal of Clark’s tender love and support for Marcus and Sophia, their daughter, revealed the depth of the character’s empathy.

The newest of the Oaklawn residents, Donald and Rhonda, did a scarily fantastic job representing two small town folk who seemed to mean well but didn’t quite understand the implications of their words and actions. The play opens with Donald asking Marcus, “So, which one of you is the wife?” This one line of dialogue set the tone of the character, and Bob Reed was the perfect casting for the role of this tense, troubled man. In direct contrast with her husband was Rhonda, an initially charming and eventually chilling woman, played by Charlotte Akin. I was entirely convinced that Rhonda was a real person expressing her real thoughts right on stage in front of us; Akin was that compelling. From drunken celebrations of her chicken vest to deeply confused confessions about Ronnie, her son, Rhonda was brought to life by Akin’s dedication and skill. These two characters were the life of this performance, harboring “big scary animals” as they move about in society. Some moments were cringy, others were charming, and a very memorable few were harrowing-what all of these moments have in common is the powerful performance of Bob Reed and Charlotte Akin.

Among the four adults in the play were two young people, Sophia and Ronnie, both troubled in their own unique ways. Monica Jones has a liveliness about her that shines through her character, Sophia, the daughter of Marcus and Clark. Along with her brilliance came bluntness, and despite her brilliance she felt alone, leading her to seek ways to fill a void in her life. Jones’s performance was powerful; she visualized the nuances of a 19-year old Black girl who is lovable, loud, lonely, and learning how she can make an impact on a big world, and she did all of this while looking trendy as hell, thanks to the costume design of Christie Vela and Isa Flores. Sophia found herself in an unlikely friendship with her new neighbor and the son of Donald and Rhonda, Ronnie, played by Brady White, who embodied the perfect balance of angsty teen and angry young man. Our first encounter with Ronnie was when he was alone in his home, stealing hesitant laughs as he twirled his dad’s gun around the living room. The performance was full of moments like this, this character suffering his way through awkwardness, being unable to cope, and occasionally surrendering to his anger. The bond between Sophia and Ronnie was chaotic, but it emphasized the recurring message that instead of suffering the inescapable traumas of the world in insolation, it is easier to do so with another loner by your side.

A thread of tension woven throughout the play, keeping the audience consistently on the edge of our seats. Danielle Georgiou, Ph.D’s intimacy and fight choreography added shock and sentiment to the performance, while Mason York’s supplemental sound design brilliantly emphasized some of the most important moments in the entire performance. The team behind the scenes of this production was small but mighty, and their hard work and skill did not go unnoticed.

The impressive commitment of the actors allowed this play to become what it was meant to be – an opportunity to witness the raw emotions that come with tackling topics that sometimes feel too scary to talk about. There were moments when I was almost sobbing, and within seconds I found myself laughing again. It happened so fast, there were still tears streaming down my cheeks as my smile started to form. Rebecca McDonald and Zetra Goodlow directed a confusing, beautiful mess that everyone must see.

Don’t shy away from big and scary topics that feel too tough to talk about. Go see Big Scary Animals and allow it to energize you to reflect and find a way to have those conversations. Who knows? You may find yourself even dropping a few truth bombs of your own.


Theater Three September 1-25. Purchase tickets through the Theater Three website. Run time: roughly 85 minutes with no intermission.

Photo Crethis: Jeffrey Schmidt

Stage Manager: Mary Ruth Knackstedt

Production Assistant: Kendalynn Clemon


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