FRINGE 2021 REVIEW CRITIC'S PICK: Harambe

"Harambe" is a sci-fi drama that grapples with reality, collective memory and morality.

click to enlarge Pictured (L to R): Brant Russell, Cathy Ross, Randy Lee Bailey, Maya Norman, Sarah Zaffiro, Chris Stewart (rear, seated) - Photo: Jeff Burkle and Kelsey Trusty
Photo: Jeff Burkle and Kelsey Trusty
Pictured (L to R): Brant Russell, Cathy Ross, Randy Lee Bailey, Maya Norman, Sarah Zaffiro, Chris Stewart (rear, seated)


Stan finds himself at a zoo on the date of a terrible tragedy, one that Cincinnatians — and the world — are likely to recall: the killing of silverback gorilla Harambe when a 3-year-old child fell into his exhibit.

Taking a page from Groundhog Day, he must repeat these events as “simulation therapy.” But what if he can change that fateful day’s course? Joshua Steele’s Fantastic Hugo Westival winds it back to May 2016 in Harambe, a sci-fi drama that grapples with reality, collective memory and morality. Although the gorilla is the play’s namesake, the involved individuals have been fictionalized. (Losantiville chili, anyone?)

While the play orbits Harambe’s death, it centers on Stan (Chris Stewart) piecing together the incident and his own mistakes a la the 2000 film Memento. We’re told that he’s reliving this moment as punishment for crimes he has committed. As someone in the simulation suggests, if he can right the situation, the computer keeping watch will perhaps set him free.

It’s an interesting premise that, because of its fantastical nature, creates distance from the real-world circumstance. And viewers are likely to walk away thinking not about that day five years ago but the concepts Harambe presented. Though left fairly open-ended, such material is likely to be polarizing, especially in the conclusions drawn.

The stage and costuming are minimalistic, but the performers mimed objects and scenery to fill the gaps in the audience’s perception. Cathy Ross headed costuming, with each character donning a grey-blue jumpsuit. Sound designer Kevin Semancik fleshed out Harambe with splashes of water and the Rita Marley song that the gorilla was named after.

Directed by Steele with Clare Jaymes serving as stage manager, the actual structure plays out like a Twilight Zone episode. With each cycle, small details filter out and in. The fedora-wearing Frenchman, played with hilarity by Brant Russell, chucks peanuts at birds in one scene and snacks on cotton candy in another. Names change. Dialogue shifts. Only one thing is stagnant: panicking zoo staff and onlookers as a child falls into the gorilla exhibit. 

Characters philosophize about humanity’s relationship to animals, turning moralistic questions to the audience while the mother (Maya Norman), yells for her son. Other characters, portrayed by Sarah Zaffiro and Cathy Ross, bounce off a befuddled Stan. They dole out cryptic clues like video game characters, nudging him to a final cycle that might or might not ever arrive.

Randy Lee Bailey as The Zoo Director has a booming voice pulled straight from a National Geographic wildlife special. A parody of Cincinnati Public Radio’s “The Ninety-Second Naturalist,” his role is perhaps the work’s most charming. In between cycles the director enters the stage to quip a natural world “fact” that becomes ever more absurd. These moments brought the most laughs. 

It ends on an odd thought-provoking note, not a satisfying one. There are no definite conclusions in this play of infinites. Wonderfully weird and unabashedly absurd, it’s worth a watch — and a post-show discussion with whomever you see it.

The Cincinnati Fringe Festival takes place June 4-19. For more information, show descriptions, a schedule and tickets, visit cincyfringe.com.

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