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Dive into 'The Annotated History of the American Muskrat'

New Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory Festival kicks off with a bang.

Photo by Cheno Pinter

Eight people wake up in a room with no idea who they are or how they got there. All they know is that they are American, and that for some reason they have to give a presentation about muskrats if they ever want to make it out of this lab. And from there, we spiral outward into a range of stories contemporary and historical, true and fictional, a surreal dream sequence that takes on questions of human connection, gun violence, surveillance and more. This is The Annotated History of the American Muskrat.

Why muskrats? That question we may never be able to answer, but playwright John Kuntz, director Skylar Fox and the Circuit Theatre ensemble use the unassuming creature as a launchpad to consider all sorts of complicated issues in our society. And while the actors openly admit their knowledge of these various muskrat anecdotes comes straight from Wikipedia, it's easy to forget about that as the show goes on, the heartfelt stories outstripping their sundry source.

There are three main narratives that play out in the piece: the subjects of the experiment, who tell a variety of somewhat related tales in a choral style from their beds in the lab; the interconnected stories of the people who work at the company running the experiment along with their families and neighbors; and the history of Betty and Gerald Ford spanning from Ford's unexpected promotion to the office of President of the United States to musical duo Captain & Tennille's performance of pop anthem "Muskrat Love" at the American Bicentennial dinner at the White House in front of Queen Elizabeth II (yes, this actually happened—just ask Wikipedia). Despite such seeming chaos, this play has a surprisingly understandable narrative, and the audience watches with rapt attention as we slowly realize that everyone is always being watched, and everyone may actually be part of the experiment after all.

The Annotated History of the American Muskrat is an extremely technically ambitious piece, featuring constant light shifts, strobe effects, projection of live streaming camera feeds and constant set and costume changes. The effect is largely successful if not as clean as it could be, which in the context of a festival such as New Ohio Theatre's Ice Factory is certainly to be applauded. The set, which consists of eight cots that throughout the piece transform into desks, doors, liquor cabinets and portals into the history of America's First Ladies, is fantastically innovative, while the show also boasts one of the most clever and successful depictions of mass gun violence performed on any stage.

This creative team certainly has something to say about race relations and guns in America, but it is unclear exactly what point they are trying to make, keeping the piece from reaching its full potential. Yet, the monologue comprising "The History of Black People in America," performed by the sole actor of color onstage, is still one of the most powerful and engaging moments in the play, along with the machine gun sequence, a poignant moment between Pat Nixon and Betty Ford as the torch is passed to the new First Lady and the delightful opening sequence enacting the Native American creation myth starring the humble muskrat.

At over two hours long, this play is certainly too long and features too many digressions, as entertaining as they may be. There are two intermissions, each at the point where the ensemble has littered the stage with so many cake crumbs, feathers, glitter and more that is no longer safe to continue on, and then the broom and vacuum come out to clean up the debris. Still, with a clearer focus, streamlined storyline and better sense of when it is wise to start throwing everything everywhere, The Annotated History of the American Muskrat would make an extremely successful and powerful 90-minute one-act.

The ensemble, consisting of Sam Bell-Gurwitz, Jared Bellot, Madeline Boles, Christopher Fitzsimmons, Simon Henriques, Molly Jones, Anna Nemetz and Justin Phillips, does a great job building the intertwining worlds of the play, moving easily between fully realized characters and members of a dazed chorus. While it is sometimes difficult to understand all of the actors' speech during the choral sections, the story they tell remains clear, as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

At times shocking, endearing, terrifying and just plain bizarre, The Annotated History of the American Muskrat is an experience you are unlikely to forget.

The Annotated History of the American Muskrat plays at the New Ohio Theatre through July 16 as part of the Ice Factory Festival.

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