Review: "cunnicularii" Births a Captivating Magical Realist Look at Motherhood


Written by Sophie McIntosh

Directed by Nina Goodheart

Presented by Good Apples Collective and Esmé Maria Ng at Alchemical Studios

50 West 17th Street, Manhattan, NYC

June 28-July 13, 2024

Camille Umoff. Photo credit: Nina Goodheart Photography
In 1726, an English laborer named Mary Toft who lived in Godalming, Surrey, convinced doctors (male, of course), both local and called in from London, that she was giving birth to (dead) rabbits (and some other assorted non-human animal parts). Although this unusual reproductivity was eventually determined to be a deception, Toft's story throws into relief not only the apparatuses of power and knowledge surrounding women's bodies but men's ignorance of those bodies, compounded by patriarchal moralism, joined with their ignoring evidence that maybe these bunnies originated elsewhere than Toft's womb in favor of their own self-advancement. With her fantastic–and fantastical–new play, cunnicularii, Sophie McIntosh, author of New York Times Critics Pick macbitches, takes Toft as a part of her inspiration for a new, contemporary Mary (Camille Umoff) in order to explore the silences and prescriptions that continue to surround motherhood–and fatherhood. And this time, there is no hoax.
Camille Umoff, Benjamin Milliken. Photo credit: Nina Goodheart Photography
When we first meet Mary, pregnant in a green dress, she is anxious and impatient for her baby to arrive. The delivery, though, with her contractions impactfully emphasized by musical stings and bold lighting changes, including a sharp snap from lurid red to overlit white with the arrival of the doctor (Benjamin Milliken), ends up somewhere adjacent to a scene from the (body) horror genre. Mary discovers, when she and her husband, Howard (Juan Arturo), are finally allowed to see their new child, that she has given birth to a rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). While the doctor chalks up what has occurred to women's bodies being mysterious and Howard is accepting and even excited, Mary is left bewildered and struggles to be a 'good' mother (confronting, for instance, with additional complications, the same pressure to breastfeed as many new mothers of human babies). At home, Mary's mother-in-law, Gladys (Jen Anaya), much more hilariously for the audience than for Mary and Howard, feels perfectly justified in trying to impose her own parenting methods, and even the couple's neighbor Greg (Benjamin Milliken) is compelled to advise Howard about parenting from a position of assertively traditional male roles. If motherhood is not what Mary expected, the play asks, why is that, and (how) can she–and Howard–arrive at a non-sacrificial model of mothering?
Juan Arturo, Camille Umoff. Photo credit: Nina Goodheart Photography
The Otherness of the rabbit makes a perfect–and adorable–symbol for the detachment that Mary feels for her offspring, unexpected by her and experienced by more women that is commonly discussed. (Under the best of circumstances, surely there is something uncanny about literally creating an Other from the flesh of the Self.) The expectation(s) of motherly attachment are a central point of contention in the play: Mary, who had developed her own expectations in connection to her own relationship with her mother, argues at one point, for example, that wanting a baby is not the same a loving it, while Gladys maintains that love requires practice and concealed effort. The doctor's responses to Mary, meanwhile, highlight how far our health care is far from holistic (and how much its dominance by men continues to impact it). The play further raises the idea–perhaps the heteronormative fear–that if more women knew, in Gladys's words, "exactly what they were getting themselves into" by having a child, fewer of them would do it. We learn at one point that Gladys has some of her own areas of silence around reproduction and motherhood, which, like questions about the role of fathers connected to Howard, also point to generational differences and the possibility that maybe contemporary parents both can be better for their children than their own parents were for them and that maybe they can change some of the problematic yet persistent norms around parenthood.
Camille Umoff, Jen Anaya. Photo credit: Nina Goodheart Photography
cunnicularii deftly interlaces its themes via a mixture of emotional authenticity, keen satire, and passages of lyrical beauty, all complemented by the engaging thematic use of color in the set, lighting, and costume design (by Evan Johnson, Paige Seber, and Saawan Tiwari, respectively)–green, for instance, having disappeared after the opening in favor of mostly white (often sterile, sometimes bloodied), makes a significant late return. Milliken is extremely funny as both the doctor and Greg, who share a similar, archetypically male blinkeredness, and Anaya brings the necessary emotional weight to Gladys's comedic overbearingness when it counts. Arturo and Umoff wonderfully capture their characters' individual struggles with self-doubt, made all the more affecting in the former's case by his winning enthusiasm and in the latter's by her underplayed evocation of the physical aftereffects of pregnancy and birth and her efforts to maintain her resolve. In the early modern period, 'monstrous' births were seen as a reflection of the mother's state of mind or, worse, as a divine judgment; cunnicularii makes it clear that, if much of this has changed, there is still plenty of judgment of new mothers to go around–but also that it is possible to kick against this policing and towards greater freedom. We may be losing the right to choose whether to bear children, and we don’t want to tell you what to do with your life, but you still can, and should, choose to see cunnicularii.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


Popular posts from this blog

Review: The Immersive "American Blues: 5 Short Plays by Tennessee Williams" Takes Audiences on a Marvelously Crafted Journey

Review: "How To Eat an Orange" Cuts into the Life of an Argentine Artist and Activist

Review: From Child Pose to Stand(ing) Up: "Yoga with Jillian" and "Penguin in Your Ear" at the Women in Theatre Festival