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The Squirrels’ Invade La Jolla Playhouse

New play by Robert Askins takes us into the world of ‘lying rodents’

Photo caption: Lakisha May, Candy Buckley, Terence Archie and Summer Spiro in La Jolla Playh...

Photo credit: Jim Carmody

Lakisha May, Candy Buckley, Terence Archie and Summer Spiro in La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of "The Squirrels" by Robert Askins, and directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley.

Something strange is going on at La Jolla Playhouse, and actor Brad Oscar is at a loss for words to explain what it is. When I ask him a question, he stammers and then starts to chatter and bark.

The Playhouse’s artistic director Christopher Ashley offered this explanation.

"In a musical, people sing when regular spoken language won’t do any more, at moments of real passion and emotion. Here, when people, when the English language won’t do it any more, they burst into squirrel. It's like, I can’t speak any more so I am going to have to bark."

But then, what can you expect when you send your actors to squirrel school to prepare for a new play by Robert Askins? It's called "The Squirrels."

Go Behind the Scenes of La Jolla Playhouse's 'The Squirrels'

The play opens with an impassioned scientist telling the audience, "Tonight’s subject is squirrels. Buckle up, you discerning patrons of the arts, because squirrels are fascinating."

"It’s really about squirrels," Ashley insisted. "And then as the play goes on there’s a little collision with the contemporary world that starts to occur to us. Maybe. You'll have to come and see what I mean."

As "The Squirrels" moved through rehearsals, playwright Askins discovered that sometimes the written word just didn’t suffice.

"Part of the thing that we have been navigating is where does a sound serve better than a word? Where will physical motion tell a story?" Askins posed.

"We are finding a similar sort of idea," added Oscar, who plays both the scientist and a troublemaking rodent. "Where when our characters reach a point of high emotion, that is maybe when squirrel movement and or sound takes over because of, again, that passion."

Photo caption: Different types of squirrel tails for La Jolla Playhouse's "The Squirrels."

Photo by Beth Accomando

Different types of squirrel tails for La Jolla Playhouse's "The Squirrels."

Determining just how squirrelly things need to be has been a fun process for Askins and Ashley.

"And when the tails came in, it was a revelation," Askins pointed out.

"Apparently [with] squirrels, the emotion is in the tail," Ashley added. "Like, they do this thing when they are upset called flagging, tails starting to get aggressive. So the actors love their tails."

Askins added, "It’s so fun, too, when you think of restoration comedy with the fan and how people used that, and now even how people will use a cell phone."

Photo caption: Some of the prop nuts for La Jolla Playhouse's "The Squirrels."

Photo by Beth Accomando

Some of the prop nuts for La Jolla Playhouse's "The Squirrels."

And when dealing with squirrels, there is no avoiding talking about their nuts.

"That is the source of a lot of the tension and the conflict in the piece," Oscar explained.

"I do think there is something innately capitalistic about squirrels," observed Ashley, who is directing the play. "They are hoarding their nuts, they are saving for a rainy day. It’s like squirrels are Depression-era human beings. We know that scarcity is coming, and we’ve got to save up for it. How much do you distribute the nuts? Inequality of distribution of the nuts turns out to be a thing our characters deal with intensively all night long."

It is that very human aspect of squirrel behavior that appealed to Askins.

"They are brilliant," he noted excitedly. "Squirrels lie to each other. They are constantly. Who doesn’t want to live in a world of lying rodents for an hour and a half?"

Ashley saw this appeal immediately.

"I love this thing where a squirrel is burying its nuts to protect them, sees that you are watching them, pretends to bury them, hides them, and then when you are not watching, goes and buries them somewhere else," Ashley said.

"That’s right. It’s like mortgage backed securities," Askins added.

Askins’ "The Squirrels" blurs the line between rodent and man.

"That line that separates us from certain species is sort of dissolved, in a way, or we see this as sort of a universal story about any group of animals coming together and trying to live together in the world or in their environment," Oscar explained.

It’s a way of telling a story about contemporary issues but in a very theatrical fashion.

"A way that takes us all out of ourselves, so that perhaps that distance then lends observation in a different way," Oscar concluded.

La Jolla Playhouse invites you to join "The Squirrels" and see what the world looks like from their perspective.

And if you need more squirrels, there is an online Squirrels Lovers Club.

La Jolla Playhouse just opened a new play by Robert Askins called "The Squirrels" and things have gotten a bit squirrelly.

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