A queer mountain lion leaps from the page to the stage
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A queer mountain lion leaps from the page to the stage
A rehearsal of a staged reading of “Open Throat” on Little Island, an elevated park situated on the Hudson River in New York, on Tuesday, July 9, 2024. In one surreal sequence, a large “O” on the stage floor (representing a letter in Los Angeles’s Hollywood sign) raises a few inches while some of the performers walk on it. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

by Juan A. Ramírez

NEW YORK, NY.- The concept behind Henry Hoke’s 2023 novel, “Open Throat,” is an eyebrow-raising one: It’s a story about overdevelopment and climate change narrated by a mountain lion who muses on the lives of hikers and loved ones.

Hoke was loosely inspired by the mountain lion known as P-22, whose regular sightings in the hills surrounding the Los Angeles Hollywood sign, successful crossing of two freeways and eventual death captured the public’s attention in 2022. In “Open Throat,” according to the book’s publisher, the animal identifies as queer and uses they and them pronouns.

The book is “what fiction should be,” novelist Marie-Helene Bertino wrote in her review for The New York Times, and it made several end-of-year best-of lists and awards short lists.

With an internal monologue that has poetically broken stanzas and a fluid sense of time and reality, “Open Throat” does not immediately call for theatrical adaptation. Yet a staged version of the work premiered Wednesday as part of Little Island’s ambitious summer series of live performances at its outdoor amphitheater.

“It reads beautifully,” Zack Winokur, Little Island’s producing artistic director, said of the book. “The way it’s placed on the page is visually interesting. The way the voice exists is not like anything else. I kept thinking that it being so voice-driven would make an amazing show, and I didn’t know how to do it, which is the greatest thing in the world.”

Soon Winokur and his producing partner, Ed Wasserman, were giving Hoke a tour of Little Island, an elevated park on the Hudson River in New York City.

Just as the lion has to cross the freeway in the book, “you have to cross the West Side Highway to get to where this is happening,” Winokur said in a phone interview.

“One of the things that’s really important to us,” he added, “is thinking about how content works inside of this space, and really charging people with considering the unusual aspects of it being a park.”

Hoke, who founded a series of interactive readings in Los Angeles, said he had considered the book’s stage potential while writing it. By the time Little Island approached him about adapting it, the rights were already tied up — though currently there are no set plans for other adaptations. Still, only a reading would be possible, which the three found to be an exciting challenge.

“We thought of it sort of like an exploded audiobook, like creating a live expression of reading,” Hoke said in an interview. “From what I’d done with that event series, I knew to trust the text and just sharpen it for performance. My work here was essentially just an abridgment.”

He enlisted his friend, director Caitlin Ryan O’Connell, to bring the piece to life under those restrictions. An early suggestion was to divide the narration among three performers.

“A huge part of this book is a transformational journey around identity, whether it’s toward personhood or companionship, in symbiosis with humans or on the gender spectrum,” Hoke said. “I was very excited by how we could map the character across various identities.”

Chris Perfetti, Calvin Leon Smith and Jo Lampert — actors of varying race and gender identities — were cast as narrators, while an ensemble of six others acts out assorted characters, including hikers who roam among the audience.

Lampert noted that the book’s inherent queerness came up a lot during rehearsals. “This cat who’s both completely on the fringes and takes pride in being unseen, but is also trying so desperately to understand and be understood,” Lampert said. “That tension felt deeply connected to being a queer person in this society.”

(Though the book’s first-person narration does not account for the mountain lion’s gender, characters refer to them, unqualified, in both masculine and feminine terms.)

Because of scheduling conflicts, the three leads seldom worked together during the brief rehearsal period ahead of its limited run through Sunday.

“We get to assume that each one of us is the authority on our section,” Perfetti said. “When people see those things up against each other, they’ll be able to tie it together. I think the beauty of it, and the reason we’re intentionally having three different voices, is making it universal.”

The creative team is playing up Hoke’s themes of embodiment and sensory experience, and recruited Steven Wendt, a Blue Man Group player, to perform live Foley sounds and hand puppetry onstage. The playfulness of the sounds, O’Connell said, matches “how full of desire and of-the-body some of Henry’s language is.”

“It’s perfect for this book that has a main character feeling overstimulated and like they don’t know how to name everything that’s happening around them,” she added. “Helicopters fly up the Hudson every 30 seconds. The sun will go down when we start the performance, so we’ll feel the sense of dusk. Listening to the highway, remembering we’re in New York; it’s the perfect setting for this experiment.”

As the mountain lion eventually flees the hills for the city, the performance becomes less textual and more theatrical. In a surreal sequence in which the big cat visits Disneyland, a large “O” on the stage floor (representing a letter in the Hollywood sign) rises a few inches while the performers walk on it as well as around the lion in its center.

“The fine line between book and play is what we’re negotiating,” said Smith, the actor.

Of the outdoor space, Winokur said, “One of the big questions we had was, ‘Do plays work here?’ It’s not about music; it’s about language. We should know if that works.

“As we figure out what future seasons look like,” he continued, “I think this is proof positive that centering language really works if you’re considering it in this way.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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