Isabella Rossellini is pursuing a new chapter in her life with the infectious enthusiasm and curiosity of a teenager. An actress, writer, producer, and model, she garnered an MA from Hunter College’s Animal Behavior and Conservation Program and will this spring earn her Master’s from the college’s Department of Psychology.
“For many centuries, scientists believed animal sounds didn’t mean anything because they lacked semantics. Now we know that’s not true.” Sounds have specific intention, Rossellini tells us. A solitary elephant can warn the herd of a poacher by a wail that carries 150 miles. Dissemination of information is managed in a multitude of ways that exhibit influences beyond instinct.
This charming, informative show was proceeded by award winning productions and short films, Green Porno, Seduce Me, and Mamas, also comically and scientifically exploring animal behavior. Rossellini lives on a farm where she has daily contact with a variety of creatures (including bees), declaring them her true calling. She unabashedly admits to anthropomorphizing, even burying her mother’s mink coat in the yard.
The writer/performer is aided and abetted by her dog, Pan (kudos to trainer Bill Berloni) dressed in part as a chicken, a lion, and a bee, and Andy Byers-Puppeteer/ Composer/Set Designer/ Costume Designer, whose deadpan/ unobtrusive presence in a black beekeeper outfit enables – everything.
Byers’ winsome creations, from Rossellini’s paper-doll-like, red, white, and blue ensemble to cut-out-and-cloth figures of scientists who speak when Rossellini places her face on their necks, from the ladder of evolution – who and what goes where?, to a wide roster of puppets, add immeasurably.
Our host is thoughtful, smart and utterly irresistible. Direction is well paced, density of information clearly communicated in acted and animated film as well as appealing demonstration. Considered subjects are wide ranging.
Experiments with chickens that reward self-control prove they learn and can be patient. Pigeons are taught to distinguish between – wait for it – work by Picasso (for which they’re awarded) and Cezanne (no prize). After awhile, exposed to different artworks, the birds can generalize sufficiently to secure rewards.
A female duck decides and engineers who fertilizes her eggs by constricting entrance to one of multiple genital tunnels. On screen, the costumed Rossellini is ‘had’ by many males, but chooses her duckling daddy by allowing internal access after penetration. A cloth-constructed visual is priceless.
The raconteur slips on hairy, elbow-length ape arms like gloves. We’re then regaled with the history of a chimpanzee who was raised alongside a little girl -clothed, combed, dining with the family, taught sign language…When she had a baby, the mother taught her little one what she’d learned, even to brush her teeth. Both picked up additional human gestures just by observing. “Isn’t this the definition of culture?”
Primitive man finds a stone and asks what can I use it for – a weapon? Rossellini clunks Byers on the head, he falls. “What distinguishes us isn’t tool using, it’s tool making.” Suggesting the difference might be ability to lie, she disproves the premise by showing a plover fake abandoning her eggs in order that a fox follow her – she eludes him – rather than zero in on progeny. “If I were as talented as the plover, I’d be a Sarah Bernhardt, an Ingrid Bergman.”
Darwin, Aristotle, Descartes, Pavlov (we watch a cut-out dog salivate), and B.F. Skinner are all brought to some light. “My imagination comes to me in images…Do dogs have imaginations that emerge in smells? Are those of a bat received through sonics? Do they think?” We’re shown plastic models of half a dozen animal brains, and one human replica. Byers staggers out with a large, stuffed, multicolored assemblage that represents a whale brain. Does size count?
Musicians have tried to capture birdsong. We look at three – a sonogram – on screen. Subtle differences are apparent. “Could these be accents?” Scientists switched eggs to nests of different mothers to see whether song changed with adoptive parents. The young birds sang like neither progenitor. “It’s speculated that our ancestors sang before they talked.” Rossellini and Byers howl at one another. “Why would our ancestors sing so badly?” she asks changing to melodic la las.
The evolution of domestication, significance of animal dances, and our five senses as compared to theirs are discussed. Every pet owner wishes he could communicate with his dog, she posits. “Even if we could both make ourselves understood, we perceive the world so differently.” Rossellini speaks to Pan, who responds by asking whether he can smell her butt. Everything illuminated is manifest in a humorous way which scientists have discovered is better retained.
This delightful evening ends with brief questions by the inimitable author/ journalist Robert Krulwich who can make anyone understood by lay people. He asks whether Rossellini has ever observed two animals in love. They speak about animal feelings, but his question, alas, is not answered. Krulwich follows up, “Have you ever gazed into the eyes of another species and been convinced something true has passed between you?” She has.
The subject of whether feeling dictates behavior or vice versa follows. Krulwich and Rossellini brush on moral dilemmas like dropping a lobster in a pot of boiling water or eating a chicken you’ve raised. Apparently most chicken farmers buy and eat other farmer’s birds rather than their own. One wishes this portion of the show was an evening in itself.
“It’s incredible to think that because we don’t understand, something doesn’t exist,” Isabella Rossellini says definitively. Too true.
Opening Photo © Tristram Kenton features alternate assistant
College Theater Project presents
Link Link Circus
by Isabella Rossellini
Directed by Isabella Rossellini and Guido Torlonia
With Andy Byers and Peter Pan
Frederick Loewe Theatre
May 2, 2019