Allegorical squabbles in ‘The Squirrels’ at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

The fun is in the physical acting. The energy is electric.

The fun is in the physical acting. The six actors in Robert Askins’ The Squirrels at Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET) run, jump, chase, paw, gnaw, “muck,” and fight with abandon, all the while chittering, squeaking, arguing, and deceiving. Squirrels gone wild! The energy is electric.

Costume designer Cody Gilliam gives the actors not only their expressive bushy tails but color-coded outfits to represent their membership in one of the play’s two contending clans: red squirrels and gray squirrels. Their habitat centers on set designer David DiFalco’s magnificent tree, wrapped around MET’s mid-stage column and spreading throughout the ceiling of the theater, sometimes moving as unseen inhabitants roam the branches. Will Heyser-Paone’s lighting design gives a dappled forest look to the setting, while pairs of red lights in the tree branches represent other squirrels watching the action.

Willem Rogers (Carolinensis), Tad Janes (Scuirus), and Courtney McLaughlin (Chordata) in ‘The Squirrels.’ Photo by Meech Creative LLC.

The show begins with the “scientist” (Matthew Harris) giving a brief flip-chart lecture on squirrel quirks, such as a fondness for dried mushrooms. We then see the patriarch of the gray clan, Sciurus (Tad Janes) — the character names derive from scientific terminology related to squirrels — who has secreted away enough nuts to last ten seasons. Economic

inequality alert: the red squirrels in the upper branches and from across the highway near the 7-11 are suffering a nut shortage. Why not share?

Scurius will have none of that. The nuts are his, full stop. His wife, Mammalia (Nicole Halmos), is more accommodating, partly out of empathy but also because their daughter, Chordata (Courtney McLaughlin), is in the mood for mucking with Carolinensis (Willem Rogers), a young red zealously intent on protecting his clan’s survival. Meanwhile, Rodentia (Shea-Mikal Green), a red adopted by Scurius and Mammalia as a half-frozen pup, sexily schemes and manipulates to get whatever she wants at a given moment.

Into this already complex sciurine world sidles Sciuridae (Matthew Harris), bent on getting all the nuts for himself. He tells Scurius that the reds are foreign enemies who must be stopped at any cost, so that the squirold, as the characters call it, can be made safe for grays. (Furry racism, anyone?) Scurius, whose memory is badly slipping and whose gluttony is excessive, is easily persuaded by whoever last talks to him. A problem: he has trouble remembering where he has squirreled away his caches of nuts.

Despite fitful efforts at cooperation by some characters, squabbles, lies, greed, and betrayals prevail. Six squirrels manage to cover all seven deadly sins. Squirrel-on-squirrel violence erupts into sylvan civil war: nature red in tooth and claw. No squirrel escapes unscathed, while machines uprooting trees, represented by loud booms in Kevin Lloyd’s sound design, lay siege to the entire ecosystem. Nothing for survivors to do except head south as refugees.

Neither Askins’ play nor the production are perfect. The script at times feels overstuffed, and it could be made more economical by eliminating some repetition. The pace of the production suffers from a few awkward scene changes, and there are a few over-the-top moments suggesting that in addition to nibbling nuts and mushrooms, squirrels may occasionally chew scenery.

That said, director Julie Herber deserves great credit for the intricacy of the play’s movement, the seamless interaction of the characters, and the commitment by actors and designers to creating a fantastical, though credible, universe that respects squirrels while carrying the playwright’s human message. The production’s success speaks of what must have been a fascinating and intense rehearsal process.

TOP: Matthew Harris (Sciuridae) and Shea-Mikal Green (Rodentia); ABOVE: Courtney McLaughlin (Chordata), Tad Janes (Scuirus), Willem Rogers (Carolinensis), Nicole Halmos (Mammalia), and Shea-Mikal Green (Rodentia), in ‘The Squirrels.’ Photos by Meech Creative LLC.

The woods are full of allusions. There is more than a hint of King Lear in the relationship between an aging father losing his grip and two daughters of very different character. The similarity in their character names — Chordata/Cordelia and Rodentia/Regan — cannot be coincidental. Like Iago with Othello, Sciuridae speaks seductive evil to the credulous Scurius. Sciuridae’s political maneuvers also echo the current political scene. Looking a bit like Steve Bannon, he’s not wearing a “Make Grays Great Again” hat, but it wouldn’t have been out of character.

It’s not necessary to burrow deep into subtext for other allegories to our present moment. Inequalities of wealth, power, and race, made worse by provocateurs stirring up hatred to serve their interests, are all too familiar. The conflicts are all the worse for a collapsing physical environment — think deforestation and climate change — in which everyone competes for diminishing resources.

In her program note, Herber speaks of the “whimsy and wonder” of the play’s world. Squirrels can be funny creatures, after all, if not typically as witty as these, but the overall tone of the play is one more of warning than of wonder. It’s a warning conveyed in an extraordinarily creative way.

Running Time: One hour and 55 minutes, including one intermission.

The Squirrels plays through April 28, 2024, presented by Maryland Ensemble Theatre performing in the group’s downstairs theater at 31 West Patrick Street in downtown Frederick, MD (across the street from the Weinberg Center). Tickets ($15–$36 with discounts available for students, senior citizens, students, and military) may be purchased by phone at (301) 694- 4744, online, or in person at the MET box office Tuesday–Friday, 12–6 pm and one hour before performances. A limited number of Pay What You Will tickets are available for each performance starting at $5 each, while inventory lasts.

The Squirrels
By Robert Askins

Tad Janes* as Scuirus
Courtney McLaughlin* as Chordata
Nicole Halmos as Mammalia
Shea-Mikal Green* as Rodentia
Willem Rogers* as Carolinensis
Matt Harris* as Scientist/Sciuridae
Bill Dennison* as Scuirus/Scientist swing
Vanessa Strickland as Chordata/Rodentia swing
Julie Herber* as Mammalia swing
Zack Callis* as Carolinensis swing

Directed by Julie Herber*
Asst. Direction by Joe Waeyaert*
Stage Managed by Olivia Pietanza*
Asst. Stage Managed by Sam White*
Set Design by David DiFalco*
Light Design by Will Heyser-Paone
Sound Design by Kevin Lloyd
Costume Design by Cody Gilliam
Properties Design by Lori Boyd*
Intimacy Choreography by Megan Behm
Fight Choreography by Casey Kaleba
Production Management by Melynda Burdette Wintrol*
Technical Direction by Cody James*

*Denotes MET Ensemble Member


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