Review: La Jolla Playhouse’s apocalyptic ‘Squirrels’ a dark, funny look at prejudice


There’s something disarmingly charming about the giant bushy tails and oversize fur feet worn by the actors in Robert Askins’ new play “The Squirrels,” but there’s nothing cuddly about the blood-squirting nut war that’s tearing them apart.

The fast-paced 90-minute play, which made its world premiere Wednesday at La Jolla Playhouse, is a witty black comedy about a mixed-race squirrel family decimated by prejudice and greed. Writ large, it’s an apocalyptic tale of America’s cultural divide.

San Diego playgoers got a taste of Askins’ boundary-pushing humor last year in the demonic puppet comedy “Hand to God” at San Diego Rep. “The Squirrels” isn’t nearly as outrageous, but it delivers an equally sharp skewering of race and politics.

Directed by Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley, the squirrels in this production chitter, nibble and crouch, but their emotions are accessibly human and Ashley has fielded an excellent cast.

Scurius, a nut-hoarding gray squirrel played with surprising gravitas by Terence Archie, lives comfortably and regally with his family in the hollow of a tree. One day he’s visited by Carolinius (an intense Marcus Terrell Smith), a hungry fox squirrel asking for a share of the family’s nuts to help his branch-dwelling tribe survive the approaching winter.

Scurius is at first swayed by his liberal-minded wife, Mammalia, played with heartbreaking urgency by Candy Buckley, and daughter, Chordata, played with nimble intelligence by Lakisha May. They convince him that peace and prosperity will come with sharing their largess.

But an opportunistic gray squirrel named Sciuridae, played with gleeful scene-stealing bravado by two-time Tony nominee Brad Oscar, preys on Scurius’ prejudices. The fox squirrels, Sciuridae warns, are inferior tree-syrup-lapping drunkards who refuse to gather their own nuts, have too many children and are threatening “our way of life.”

Summer Spiro is scheming as Rodentia, the cold-hearted adopted fox squirrel daughter of Scurius and Mammalia. Like Lady Macbeth, she plots with Sciuridae to seize the tree throne. Max Singer, Sidney Hill and Danielle E.B. Wineman complete the cast as nameless squirrels.

The characters’ names are the actual Latin nomenclature for the squirrel genus and species. But they also sound like names of characters from ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s history plays. Scurius is Othello, undone by Sciuridae’s crafty Iago. He’s also King Lear, driven mad after foolishly exiling the family who loves (or in squirrel speak, “mucks”) him.

As a new play, “The Squirrels” is in good shape, though its final scenes feel a little clunky and the acorn den collapse scene is confusing. I also wanted to know more of Carolinius’ backstory.

Instead of a realistic tree set, the action plays out on a stylish, industrial black steel tree structure designed by Beowulf Boritt, which hints at the hidden brutalism in squirrel culture. Paloma Young designed the not-too-animalistic costumes, Tyler Micoleau designed lighting, Cricket S. Myers designed sound and John Narun designed projections.

Besides playing Sciuridae, Oscar also plays a kooky science professor who bookends the play with lectures on society (squirrel and otherwise). And just like in “Hand to God,” he drops a thought bomb on the way out, this time about our responsibility for the destruction of the environment and for the care of one’s fellow squirrel (and otherwise).

“The Squirrels”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 8.

Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, Playhouse/UCSD Theatre District, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.

Tickets: $25 and up

Phone: (858) 550-1010

Online: Twitter: @pamkragen