Donavon Armbruster (left) as Jerry and Mark Snowden as Peter in the Bricks Theatre's The Zoo Story.
The Bricks Theatre brings Edward Albee's one-act The Zoo Story out of the stuffy theater and into a venue that's unconventional and perfect: the former location of the Lussier Teen Center at 827 E. Washington Ave. The Zoo Story takes place outside the Central Park Zoo, so the soft growl of traffic and whistle of passing trains provide an ideal city soundtrack. The open ceilings and graffiti murals give this makeshift theater a feel that's both urban and unpretentious -- a blank slate for a show that will fill your head with questions to the point of bursting.
The plot of The Zoo Story is deceptively simple: a sunny afternoon, a park bench, two strangers. There's Peter (Mark Snowden), who's lived life by the books -- a suit, good job, wife and kids. Wild-eyed Jerry (Donavon Armbruster) is a self-described transient who lives in a rooming house and spends his days battling loneliness and his landlady's mean dog. He cajoles Peter into a conversation that ends up changing the lives of both men.
Overall, directors David Pausch and Peter Hunt and have done an excellent job with The Zoo Story. Without the distractions of fancy costumes, scenery, even scene changes, there's nothing to take away from the script and performances. Armbruster and Snowden don't disappoint. The two actors take on their roles fully, treating their characters not like ink on the page, but like deeply troubled friends who've returned home at last.
As Jerry, Donavon Armbruster is fantastic. With messy hair and a fierce energy that conjures Jeff Bridges with a belly-full of moonshine, Armbruster's Jerry captivates reluctant Peter as well as the audience. Peter, played by Mark Snowden, is straitlaced, wavering realistically between humoring Jerry and actively listening to his ranting.
With less dialogue and movement, Peter seems the easier role in The Zoo Story, but he's actually the trickier figure: it's much easier to play crazy than sane. Despite his start as a reluctant participant in the conversation, Snowden's Peter grows exponentially more animated as the play nears the end. After his struggle with Jerry, Peter's maniacal crying seems more like laughing, leading the audience to wonder which of the men is really crazy.
A recent addition to the theater scene in Madison, the Bricks Theatre has identified a niche: high-quality, small-scale shows that are approachable and affordable. The Zoo Story is a prime example. It's as satisfying and rich as overhearing a mysterious conversation, then spending all night whispering about what it means.
And the Bricks is doing good work offstage as well. By developing partnerships with local organizations, the Bricks is able to present shows in unique venues (the East Washington Avenue space is owned by The Goodman Community Center) while strengthening the community. For the run of The Zoo Story, if theatergoers bring 6 canned goods for the Goodman Center food pantry, they'll receive a free ticket to a future production. The Bricks Theatre is also reaching out to the service industry by offering performances on Monday and Tuesday nights at a reduced price to those who wait tables or mix drinks.