On Sunday, Mixed Blood Theatre founder Jack Reuler took a dramatic helicopter ride over St. Paul, soaring and dipping above the capital city's spires. The flight gave him a real feel for some of the action in "Animate," the play he is staging as his swan song as the artistic director of the company he founded in 1976.
Reuler plans to hand over the reins of Mixed Blood next summer.
"Animate," the site-specific world premiere, begins with a helicopter, carrying precious cargo intended to save species, landing at St. Paul's Como Zoo. All the action takes place among the animal exhibits at the zoo, a place that has long held a fascination for the director.
"My original ambition was to be a zoo vet," said Reuler, who studied zoology at Macalester College and was once up for leadership of the Minnesota Zoo. "I get to marry my passions through this [play]."
Written by longtime collaborator Ken LaZebnik, who also wrote "Autonomy," "On the Spectrum" and "Vestibular Sense," "Animate" deals with questions about extinction and species preservation. The show also touches on bias and an ethical dilemma that's particularly relevant in the era of COVID-19: Does the good of the many supersede the good of the individual?
"Some plays have moral conundrums of right versus wrong," Reuler said. "This one is about right versus right."
The cast is a list of Twin Cities stage notables, including Sally Wingert, Jevetta Steele, Regina Marie Williams, Stephen Yoakam, Bruce Young, Randy Reyes, Kevin Kling and Taj Ruler, the founder's daughter.
"We didn't have formal auditions — I called my friends," Reuler said. "I just happened to have super-talented friends."
Over the years, Reuler has created site-specific shows whose locations and stories spoke to urgent issues with an element of big spectacle. "Autonomy," a futuristic piece from 2019, was set in a pandemic-beset world where humans automated most tasks, including the use of self-driving cars. It took place at the Science Museum of Minnesota amid a cornucopia of vintage cars.
"Safe at Home," from 2017, spoke to immigration and sports, and took place in the locker rooms at CHS Field in St. Paul.
"Animate" might be the biggest spectacle of all.
"This is Jack at his finest — he's pulled out all the stops," said raconteur Kling, who first worked with Reuler in 1982, playing a teenager in "Lemons." That was his first paid job. Now he's closing out Reuler's career.
"Some people are anti-zoos, and I get that, but the roles of zoos have changed from places where you went to see exotic creatures to places that are now in the business of species preservation," Kling said. "A lot of the animals in zoos have had their habitats destroyed. What's our obligation then?"
Scenes among the animals
Altogether, "Animate" has eight scenes, with the whole cast being involved in the beginning and closing sections. The six scenes sandwiched between those group numbers take place simultaneously in the various animal exhibits such as those for giraffes, great apes and penguins.
"I get to wear a tuxedo with penguins — how do you beat that?" Kling said. "I get to see the original designers of my costume."
Kling and the other actors may not be too miffed if audiences get distracted in the setting, as the animals have natural charisma.
"I totally expect to be upstaged. I laugh to think that anybody will listen to a word we say when the polar bears swim by," said Wingert, whose history with Reuler goes back to the years shortly after the theater was founded. "Ken has written a really good play and it's ingenious how it incorporates our site and serious issues of the day. It's funny and insightful. Then there are those animals in background."
The production was designed with safety in mind. All cast members have a single, unchanging costume. No props are shared by two people. And actors and audiences are masked, showing how humans are linked by fate and vulnerability.
"For animals, competition is about food and survival," said Steele, who plays a foundation executive. "But survival of the fittest doesn't apply to us in the same way. Humans are interdependent, and if we have parity, everyone could survive and flourish."
For the staff at Como Zoo, where admission is free and which normally had an annual pre-pandemic attendance of about 2 million, working with a theater show has been a revelation.
"When we first started talking about it — all during COVID — it was really intriguing what they were proposing," said Como director Michelle Furrer. "We've done things with the music scene — Grooving in the Garden and Music Under Glass. We've hosted special exhibits. But this is the first time with a theater, and they really got the issues and purpose of zoos."
Established in 1897, Como began as a menagerie of exotic animals. But it has evolved to become a leading institution, and one that rigorously adheres to standards on the treatment of animals.
"Zoos have evolved to be much more about species conservation and survival as opposed to the wow factor of exotic animals," Furrer said. "And the play gets how they've gone from the menagerie style to much more of these immersive experiences rooted in high-quality animal care and welfare."
The production is not just for entertainment, said Furrer, but seeks to make a connection and engage a different kind of an audience.
For Reuler, the fauna serves as silent ratifiers of his career.
At a time of "zoo detractors, we put our fingers on the scale in terms of being pro-zoo," Reuler said. "Our work has always been about how can we use theater to infuse itself in social equations."
He feels that the larger purpose for theater goes beyond making flawed humans more enlightened about themselves and one another. We also should learn more about the creatures that share this world with us.
Who: By Ken LaZebnik. Directed by Jack Reuler for Mixed Blood Theatre. When: 6:30 p.m. Wed.-Sun.; 9 a.m. Thu. & Fri. Ends Sept. 26. Where: Como Zoo, 1225 Eastbrook Dr., St. Paul. Tickets: No cost. mixedblood.com.