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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Carnival of Animals

HOW SENTIENT ARE OUR DOMESTICATED BEASTS? How about beasts in general? We’d like to think that those creatures we take into our houses and hearts, at least, have a capacity to reckon – but for many years we’ve been accused of anthropomorphizing the animals: informing them with human characteristics they can’t possibly have.

Isabella Rossellini and Pan
Isabella Rossellini knows otherwise, and science has been catching up with her. Her show “Link Link Circus,” which played at Bard College’s Fisher Center last Saturday (following acclaimed runs in Manhattan and throughout Europe), presents a cheerful array of lectures, sketches, films, animations, and circus tricks all in the service of animals.

One of which, a dog named Peter Pan, considerably ups the “awww” factor. Like Liberace, the dog goes by its surname; unlike the pianist, Pan doesn’t rely on costumes for effect. But that didn’t stop him from appearing in a dazzling array. Pan is a rescue dog, and we learned that Rossellini is deeply involved with animal rescue and training. In addition to dogs, her Long Island farm accommodates populations of chickens and bees.

You know Rossellini from her many movies and modeling jobs; if you know her from her previous animal essays, collected as “Green Porno,” you also know that she’s wry, witty, and knows her subject well. She showed us the sex lives of selected beasts in videos that found her impersonating the animals in question, costumed with stylized quirkiness. “Link Link Circus,” she promised, would focus from the waist up, but you can’t shut sex completely out of any biological exploration.

Especially when you’ve had a beetle named for you. Ptomaphaginus isabellarosselliniae, an undistinguished-looking bug from Borneo, turns out (when male) to have a spectacularly long penis or (otherwise) to have a vagina that twists like a county road in West Virginia – indicative of an evolutionary race that finds the female working to maintain control of just who gets to inseminate her. Rossellini was so honored because “Green Porno” included, among other fascinating clips, a look at a species of duck that has responded to what amounts to reproductive gang rape by developing a labyrinthine vagina replete with dead-end canals into which she can divert the sperm of unworthy males.

Rossellini shared that clip with us, but in this show it’s in service to her exploration of evolution as a means of discovering clues to animal intelligence. As Darwin pointed out, many seeming differences are differences of degree, not of kind, as can be observed when comparing the skeletons of a variety of wings and hands. Might the brain be like the skeleton? Do animals reason?

The stage (design by Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers) features a lectern flanked by cartoon-drawing busts. Across the apron is a set of pull toys, a miniature circus train drawing a complement of animal dolls. But it’s Pan who impersonates (which can’t be the correct term) the variety of animals who fall under scrutiny, and does so with the panache of a born entertainer.

Pan is shepherded by the charming Schuyler Beeman, who sets up the stage at the top of the show while chatting amiably with the audience, and who then reappears in a beekeeper’s suit dyed black to suggest an unobtrusiveness that the talented, charismatic fellow doesn’t actually possess.

He’s a great complement to Rossellini as she tries to steer a serious path in her presentation, but it’s not a serious story she has to tell. Well; it’s serious insofar as this pursuit is informed with passion, but it’s not wrapped in the solemnity that can dog such a thing. Clerics of yore struggled to differentiate the reproductive actions of humans from those of beasts, and we’ve been suffering ever since from the ridiculous strictures they invented. And not just to do with sex: as Rossellini recounts, she was told by the nuns that schooled her that animals possessed no souls, thus excluding them from an afterlife, a differentiation she found maddening.

Although it would seem that animal utterances lack semantics – “meaning meaning” – it turns out that they have definite means of vocal communication. Birdsong, for example, is the most obvious manifestation, and suggests that even humans may have sung before speaking. Rossellini takes us through the thinking of the likes of Aristotle and Descartes by impersonating those personages through face-placed cutouts in those cartoonish busts, soon bringing us to Darwin and B.F. Skinner (“We think we think, but we don’t really think – we are trained.”)

Yet animals, like humans, use tools. They also make tools. They also know how to lie, if you take the piping plover’s ability to deflect a predator from her eggs by feigning disability. And chickens have been trained to tell a Picasso from a Cezanne, which would suggest some at least a little bit of critical ability.

Films and animations (by Andy Smetanka and Courtney Pure) enhance the show, particularly an extended look at the domestication of dogs. It’s a nicely paced 75 minutes that gives you the sense of being a guest at a casual but memorable after-dinner show. The show is young – it premiered in May – and still seems to be searching for its ideal structure. But it’s on an excellent path. Young animals play with a purpose, we were told, in order to prepare for all the possibilities of life. “Link Link Circus” plays with us to teach us about the possibilities of animals, who certainly deserve such attention.

Link Link Circus
Written by and starring Isabella Rossellini
Sosnoff Theater
Bard College, Annandale, NY
17 November 2018

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