On a leisurely stroll down a busy interstate, a group of peacocks is exploring what, for them, is a new world. They have just escaped from the Philadelphia Zoo. Tom, Dick, Harry, and Pat are on a mission organized and led by Tom. They must get to a mountaintop somewhere unknown to them to accomplish a mission first started by their ancestors. All the peacocks in the world were originally from another galaxy, but very few of them remember that history. They were sent to Earth to study humankind and then report back. This group does remember and must now send a report to their home world. For them, it is as Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Proud by Judd Lear Silverman is a delight about some interesting, otherworldly peacocks. Skillfully directed by Eric Parness, the story is based on an event in Philadelphia in 2018 when four peacocks escaped from the zoo and disrupted traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway for four days.
Tom, played with masterful ease by Rick Benson, is the group’s leader and “elder.” He represents the history of the clan and is the one who knows what has to be done. Harry, embodied with the ego of a peacock’s peacock by Duane Chivon Ferguson, struts his stuff and preens the gorgeousness of his feathers every chance he gets. Elliot Colby is Dick, the intellectual of the group. Carrying books and quoting Shakespeare, he is a constant irritation to Harry but is still essential to the mission’s success. Finally, Pat is the youngster, and Paulina “pau” Tobar perfectly embraces her character as an adolescent on the verge of adulthood.
After the troop escapes from the zoo and makes a plan for their trek to the mountaintop, they discuss the nature of the mission. Tom explains the history of their time on Earth as peacocks and what has been discovered about the nature of humankind.
TOM: “And yet frequently, they are also the cause of that pain! The things they make us do! They put us on display, like we are here strictly for their entertainment. … They love a good conquest, but they usually don’t know what they’re conquering! Man will tromp on an ant hill just when they’ve come to find out what ants actually do! … They know far less than just about any other life form on this planet! They toxify their own air, pollute their own water, and poison their own land! They’ve mindlessly destroyed their own habitats — as well as ours!”
This moment is where the message of the play becomes apparent. From this point on, the dialogue will be about the planet’s condition and humankind’s responsibility for that condition. Although there are moments when it seems “preachy,” the discussion is handled well without distracting from the story’s core. It is clear from the ensuing conversation that Tom’s report will be a recommendation to destroy the planet. In terms of the report, Dick is a dissenter, Harry uncaring either way, and Pat struggling to understand the enormity of what is being discussed about the future of humankind and all the living creatures on the planet.
And so they start on the trek to the mountaintop, and as they begin, they are confronted with things they had never experienced directly before, such as wide-open spaces, cars, and a black-top of the highway. Harry is holding back as Tom, Dick, and Pat tentatively venture onto the highway. Tom chides him for being afraid.
HARRY: “Oh, all right! Never let it be said I allowed fear to stop me!”
(And HARRY steps onto the highway. He immediately starts hopping around in pain.)
HARRY: “Aaaaah! Hot, hot , hot, hot . . .”
The adventure continues over several days while zoo keepers try to capture the birds, police protect the birds by redirecting the highway traffic, and TV news broadcasters keep the listening audience aware of all the moves. The supporting cast of Lluvia Almanza, Ben Dworken, Rachael Langton, Orlando F. Rodriguez, and Jonathan Wong Frye is used as a framework in some of the later scenes. However, for some reason, they are working behind character masks that add nothing to who they are depicting and are dehumanizing, given the nature of the play. Nevertheless, the story has a few surprises along the way and has an ending that is bittersweet and hopeful.
Zahra Jangbar’s costumes for the peacocks are spot-on and beautifully crafted, while that of the supporting cast are adequate for the characters being depicted. However, the lighting design by Jess Clapper is uneven and does not adequately support the action. For example, characters speak their lines in shadow while the center of the spot is nearby. In addition, the uncredited set design is sparse, with elements of the various scenes left to the audience’s imagination. In the case of the scenic design, better use could have been made with the large projection screen in the background. In both these cases, the issues may be related to the venue with limited lighting equipment and restrictions on moving and storing sets and scenery.
There are three reasons this is not a play for small children, even though the main characters are a delightful band of peacocks. First is the length of the play; at one hour and fifty minutes, it is a stretch for children under eight to ten years of age to stay focused. It was the case at the performance I saw on February 11. Second, the play’s subject matter may be too sophisticated for young children. Third, the events towards the end, and the ending, may be upsetting.
Proud (through February 26, 2023)
Rising Sun Performance Company with The 14 Y Theater
Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-780-0800 or visit http://www.ci.ovationtix.com/36649
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission