Review: “Animals Commit Suicide” (First Floor Theater)

Michael Reyes, Nik Kourtis/ Photo: Ariela Subar
Michael Reyes, Nik Kourtis/ Photo: Ariela Subar

Show: Animals Commit Suicide

Company: First Floor Theater

Venue: Collaboraction’s Room 300 Theater at the Flat Iron Arts Building (1579 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 4

This is the second play that I’ve seen in a month that had graphic sex on stage.  “Animals Commit Suicide” doesn’t have a special choreographer for the sex acts in the play.  And yet, the acts appear natural and real.  That’s actually how the entire show seems.  Natural and real.  In a town known nationally for the gritty realism that was born at places like Steppenwolf, I have yet to see a better example of the genre than what is put forth by Hutch Pimentel and his cast.

J. Julian Christopher’s script is about a man named Chase (Nik Kourtis) who is on a quest.  He frequents parties at which HIV-positive hosts attempt to infect the guests.  He goes to these parities on purpose.  He is what is known as a bug-chaser.  For whatever reason, Chase wants to get AIDS, so he engages in behavior that will likely lead to his needing AZT and the rest of the drug cocktail that such a diagnosis will require for the rest of his life.

Ashley J. Hicks, Nik Kourtis/ Photo: Ariela Subar
Ashley J. Hicks, Nik Kourtis/ Photo: Ariela Subar

Chase has issues.  A lot of them.  But, he doesn’t want to take them up with the psychologist/clinic worker (Ashley J. Hicks) who frequently encounters him at the free testing clinic.  Hicks plays a tough-love type of gatekeeper to the world that Chase wants to enter.  She is both patient, and firm.  From the moment the lights come up, Hicks is unimpressed and caring at the same time.  There is risk in starting the play with a character that is a little too real.  Namely that it can seem as if the character isn’t being acted.  Perhaps we are looking at an exact slice of life?  Perhaps.  Kourtis isn’t always as effective at allowing us to feel as though he isn’t performing, but he’s there most of the time.  Generally, the entire ensemble simply exists within the skins of their characters and does so with tremendous skill.

Michael Reyes plays Sebastian, Chase’s buddy/drug supplier, who happens to be HIV positive.  It is never stated that he is in love with Chase, but his behavior later in the play takes on a sickly green tint of jealousy when Chase falls for Ethan (Brian Keys).

Now, something to consider:  I saw the play near the beginning of its run, and Keys was playing Ethan.  By the time this review publishes, he will have been replaced by Shaun Baer.  Keys plays the role of Ethan, an HIV-positive baker who has been living with the disease for over a decade, with a combination of vulnerability and earnestness which makes him seem like the only truly good guy in the play.  His quiet and safe masculinity holds up the romance story line as sweetly plausible.  It hurts to see him unwittingly embracing a man who is using him.  Which, make no mistake, Chase is indeed using a trusting soul to get infected.  Watching Keys take the journey toward heart break is painful and raw.

While I’ve not seen Baer’s rendition of the role of Ethan, I have known Shaun for over a decade, and I can tell you that he is a tremendous actor and will bring his own pathos to the part.  It will be a slightly different play, but it won’t suffer from the change.

Brian Keys, Nik Kourtis/Photo: Ariela Subar
Brian Keys, Nik Kourtis/Photo: Ariela Subar

The play feels intimate, not only due to the subject matter, the nudity, etc.; but because the set-up of the scenic and lighting elements.  The action takes place down a chute between the rows of chairs.  No single viewer is ever more than a couple of feet away from the action.  And when that action is violent, bloody sex, it is uncomfortable to be right there in the midst thereof.  It looks real.  It feels real.  It is not a situation anyone wants to be brought into.  And yet, there you sit, unable to look away.  The story can’t go on without the brutality, the intimacy, and the glaring exposure.  John Kelly’s lights ensure the glaring part of that equation.  In addition to traditional stage lights, the walls are lined with fluorescent tube lights which can be blinding at times, but also shed harsh light upon a tale that requires it.  Nothing here is pretty, and each character’s flaws stand brightly illuminated, both figuratively and literally.

I don’t know who did the blood work on this show, but it was really well done.  No one receives credit for it in the program.  Similarly, the sex choreography isn’t claimed by anyone.  However, whomever did that blocking has a thing or two that they could teach Yehuda Duenyas of ATC’s recent “Fulfillment”.

I left the theatre feeling like I’d been punched in the gut… in a good way.  This was a powerful and meaningful piece that leaves you more than a little shaken in the end.  It looks at a phenomenon within modern gay culture.  It looks at humanity’s darker side.  It looks at one man’s struggle with guilt and acceptance.  And when it comes down to it, it tells a tale that makes the audience think and feel.  It does everything a play should, and it does it really well.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Visceral and vicious: a rough ride with a bug chaser.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”