“It’s hard to be with someone and not be with them.”
“He sees the creases before they happen…he takes a flat sheet of paper…”
Within its storytelling complexities we find a narrative grounded in the teacher-student relationships that surround the 100-minute One-Act currently on stage at the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center in Tampa. Written by Rajiv Joseph in 2008, this quirky one-act romantic comedy packs a punch that bubbles just below the surface. Analyzing the student/teacher/mentor relationship, we encounter three unlikely individuals whose lives are impacted by lessons based not only on origami, but also on how we feel pain as humans and how we we adapt/deal with.
Rajiv Joseph won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 with his work Bengal Tiger at Baghdad Zoo, who made a stint on Broadway with the great, late Robin Williams. Rajiv Joseph also won an Obie award for his work describe the night in 2018. No stranger to telling the inner workings of human relationships, Rajiv Joseph has won critical acclaim for his many works, and yet he is still considered slightly unknown in some arenas.
Jobsite Theatre, the Straz Center’s resident theater company, is no stranger to unique works and does so brilliantly by staging Paper animals. Director Tatiana Baccari rocks the unique and complex storyline of Rajiv Joseph’s work with the strongest hands. Guiding us through 100 quick and clever minutes that you dare not blink because you’ll miss even the smallest of “folds”, leading to another gripping anecdote in the lives of these characters.
On its surface paper animals features the life of famous reclusive origami artist Ilana Andrews played by the mesmerizing Nicole Jeannine Smith. Recently returned to the Tampa area after pursuing his Masters in Acting. No stranger to the yard arena having previously played Marmaduke/Bonthrop Shelmerdine Esquire/Ensemble in Orlando, and approaching the solo piece 4.48 Psychosis under the direction of Giles Davies. We welcome Nicole with open arms to the site scene as the “First Lady of Origami”. As Ilana, Nicole Jeannine Smith is captivating every moment, you feel the urgency of her need to be alone, and yet you feel her pain at the same time. Following a brutal divorce and the disappearance of her aging dog, Ilana sequesters herself into a studio life surrounded by her job and Chinese takeout. In a chance encounter, Andy, an over-excited calculus teacher and avid Ilana fan, talks to himself in his studio despite resistance.
“Some animals, they just want to die alone…”
Andy played by local favorite Cornelio “Coky” Aguilera is almost cartoonish at times, yet endearing and real at its core. The relationship that is established between the famous artist and the fan goes from a slightly intrusive care to a real concern for the pain felt by each. You see Andy started at age 12 counting his blessings, and literally writing them down in a notebook. Revealing only specific anecdotes related to Ilana, Andy reveals in his heart what a good and decent man he happens to be yet so lonely at the same time. Sure, he has his students and his school duties, but at its core, he strives to find the human connection that we all crave. He develops a fondness for Ilana and convinces her to mentor his student Suresh, a mathematical genius and scholar-type for Origami. Cornelio is exceptional in his performance here and every time he takes the stage I know we are going to experience something special. Like Nicole, Cornelio is no stranger to the construction site scene, and this might turn out to be my favorite role to date.
“What is a blessing… can anything be a blessing?”
Suresh is a rude-mouthed, aspiring hip-hop star and a scholarly guy for Origami. Blazing around the room and leaving no prisoners in its wake, tries to charm Ilana with her speaking and street-rapping abilities, while trying to break her out of the shell she’s condemned herself to. You see since her divorce and the disappearance of her dog, Ilana has not folded a single fold. Then, by chance, at an origami conference in Nagasaki, Japan; the events that unfold between Suresh and Ilana alter the course and change the lives of Andy, Suresh and Ilana as they come to know him.
“If origami is music, it’s running away.”
As Suresh, Faizan Basheer is like lighting trapped in the smallest of bottles. The search for a creative outlet in his life led Faizan to the Bay Area where he began training with Eugenie Bondurant at the Green Light Cinema in St. Petersburg. I, for one, am thrilled that he found the Jobsite Theater because his rendition of Suresh draws you in from the first meeting and keeps you in his grip until the final release. A powerful representation of Faizan, and he will be one to watch for future projects. He’s so grounded, so focused in every moment, that you find yourself waiting to see what he’s going to do next. Her relationship throughout the show with Ilana builds, and eventually you wonder why Ilana has been so reclusive and hard to approach throughout. Deep down, Suresh will do anything for the most important people in his life, but it takes someone looking beyond his facade and really letting him in for that to happen. A compelling and compelling performance that must be seen!
“You talk like you talk…”
Director Tatiana Baccari crafts the perfect blend of human relationships and their inner workings set in Rajiv’s screenplay. Nothing is left to chance, these characters become raw and real people, not caricatures. You feel for Ilana and see her hurt just beyond her eyes, you feel for Andy and his need for human connection, and you feel for Suresh and his need to not only be seen but also accepted. It’s the job of a strong director, for this audience to feel something for each of these characters from the first word to the final bow. The effortless breath of fresh air that surrounds this work is evident at every turn. Tatiana and company should be exceptionally proud of the work done here, which I will remember for a long time. Rajiv’s work needs more exposure in the region, and for my part, I am happy that Jobsite was finally able to produce this exceptional piece.
Set design by Brian Smallheer and lighting design by Jo Averill-Snell work together perfectly to blend the world in which these characters reside. There’s a beautiful moment in the final seconds of the show that leaves you speechless, and as the lights go down, you’re left to your own guess as to what these characters’ lives might be like. Beautifully executed in design and direction, there is no other show like it in caliber and presentation. Katrina Stevenson’s costumes are top notch and work well for each of the character’s unique personalities. Jeremy Douglass’ outstanding sound design works well, blending new age and old school hip hop to convey the show’s world and the lives of these characters.
The good folks at Jobsite have done it again and created a world unlike anything we’ve seen recently. The ever-changing worldview and rising inflation create a world plagued by worry and conflict, and it’s nice to take a moment and escape to a world different from ours. What’s so unique about this piece isn’t just the origami, but also how much the characters in the story resemble real life. We have all experienced hurts, pains and losses both in love and in life. It’s how we choose to face and navigate the world that sets each of us apart. Do we choose to cross alone or surround ourselves with our chosen families and loved ones? The exquisite paper animals by Rajiv Joseph is on stage at the Shimberg until August 7, 2022. Don’t sleep on the brilliant work here, as it would be a disservice to miss out on this unique, poignant and powerful piece. Tickets can be purchased by visiting strazcenter.org.
“A big part of who I am is what I’ve lost.”
“To meet you… to know you…”
PHOTO CREDIT: NED AVERILL-SNELL