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Survival of the Wittiest

A Darwinian descendant sparks laughter at CPT

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The trouble with writing a long review about a short play is that a reader might be inclined to think this article tells everything you'd need to know. So there's no need to see it. After all, time is precious, and it's more efficient to read reviews than to actually spend time sitting through a suspiciously odd-sounding theatrical.

But no matter how dazzlingly informative you believe this review to be, it comes nowhere near replicating the experience of viewing Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. In just 70 minutes, this one-man tour de force spins you through a funny and thought-provoking story involving Charles Darwin, his still (!) controversial ideas, and the dangers of getting up in somebody's niche.

As dense and rich as Paula Deen's Double Chocolate Gooey Butter Cake, this delicious piece of theater is conceived, written, and directed by Glen Berger and its sole actor, Brett Keyser. Interestingly, Berger also happens to be the co-writer of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which is now struggling to find its footing on Broadway.

But there are no flying actors in Darwinii. Indeed, that title word (pronounced Dar-WIN-eee-eye) refers to an ostrich-like bird, the Rhea darwinii, native to Argentina. It was named after the famed naturalist who spent time in Patagonia back in the 1830s while sailing on the HMS Beagle, researching wildlife and such.

That partly explains why a wild-haired Argentinean named Cristobal comes before us with an apology. Dressed in a prison jumpsuit, he explains that his presentation is part of a 3,000-hour community service sentence, earned for stealing Darwin-related materials from institutions around the world.

But Cristobal's apology quickly comes unglued as he digresses into his life story. As a child, he became aware of fact and legend surrounding Darwin's visit to his country. So as an illiterate teenager he began selling Darwin tchotchkes to gullible tourists. All seemed to be going well until he discovered a Darwin-like "tree of life" drawing in the family Bible, sending him off on a quixotic journey.

Part of the impact of this remarkable performance is due to proximity, with the audience seated up close in just two rows on either side of a red-carpeted strip. Keyser, the exceptional actor who portrayed W.B. Yeats in last year's CPT production of Open Mind Firmament, works this blood-red runway with the fierceness of Tyra Banks on meth.

Thin as an ostrich neck and brandishing two knives for protection, Cristobal flaps and prances like the large flightless bird alluded to in the title. He is convinced that while Darwin was in Tierra Del Fuego, Chuck sampled more than the flora and fauna, and wound up poking some local talent whose descendants eventually turned into ... him!

As the self-proclaimed great-great-great-great-bastard-grandson of the renowned scientist, Cristobal is a wily survivor. Even though he can't read Darwin's words, he adapts by picking up books on tape.

One of the many high points is when Cristobal explains a key concept: "Survival of the fittest does not mean those that go most often to the gym. Not physically fit." He then asks the audience to imagine him naked and themselves as a variety of pants.

This, to him, is natural selection: "I thrive out in the world because I am a highly adjustable pair of pants. I am like sweats, or chinos, appropriate for many situations: dockside parties, bar mitzvahs. Okay? You get it?" And we do, flowing with this fractured interpretation into Cristobal's warped world.

It turns out, the key to Cristobal's search is finding Darwin's little book of sexual conquests, which Cris only imagines must exist. That drives him to scoop up any and all Darwiniana in hopes of finding the evidence he needs to establish his lineage and provide a lifetime of riches.

By turns defensive ("Don't get up in my niche!"), seductive, and witty, Keyser creates a symphony of glorious intellectual dysfunction that plays well against the hard rationality of his supposed forebear.

Eventually, Cristobal latches onto a Darwin biographer and makes his way to England to confront actual members of the Darwin clan. But he is only there to get a cheek scraping for a DNA test, a plan that turns out to be just as flawed as it first appears.

Darwinii is an immediate contender for the title of Most Enjoyable and Engrossing 70 Minutes on Stage in 2011. But take note: It plays to fewer than 100 people per performance. So do the math and act soon.

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