By Julianne Wilson
I was late to a ten-minute play, starring me, as a chimpanzee. Make Yourself At Home was based off of a fascinating, yet disturbing true story of nature vs. nurture, and ran by appointment for one person at a time at Baltimore’s Annex Theatre from February 20th– February 22nd. “I’m interested to see what happens when an audience member goes into an experience being as nervous as the performer,” playwright and actor Cricket Arrison told me.
The play is about the relationship between Lucy Temerlin and Janis Carter. Temerlin, a chimpanzee, was adopted at two days old by a psychotherapist and his wife, and raised in their home as a human. Lucy wore clothes, loved to make tea for guests, used a human toilet, and was attracted to human males, demonstrated by her fondness for Playgirl magazine. Lucy also loved to vacuum, although as she approached puberty she began to make more messes than could be cleaned up up.
Unable to manage Lucy’s destructive tendencies, the Temerlins sent her to a nature preserve in Gambia. She was accompanied by Janis Carter, a comparative psychologist who originally planned to stay with Lucy for three weeks, but ended up spending ten years working with Lucy, teaching her to survive. “Make Yourself At Home” provides a snapshot into the everyday life of and relationship between Lucy and Janis. Arrison played Janis; We all play Lucy.
I put on the chimp mask and walked through a curtain. On the other side Arrison greeted me with wide and curious eyes, and immediately started inspecting my limbs. “Hey Lucy! Look at you! You’ve been gone for two days now.” I stood in half-shock, peering through the mask as this stranger put her hands all over my body. She took out a small tape recorder patted my stomach. “Lucy seems to be gaining weight.”
She took my hand and guided me into a cage covered with leaves. The sounds of birds and cicadas and jungle cats emanated from all around us—I had travelled to Gambia within an instant. The cage was sparsely decorated, with only two chairs, a table, and a box.She sat me down and opened up the box. “Alright Lucy, I’m going to show you a few objects, okay?” I nodded in reply. “Lucy still understands some English, and American Sign Language,” she noted. “Probably because I speak with her so often.”
She took an array of different colored squares out of the box. “Alright Lucy, which one is blue?” She asked, signing at me. “Correct response,” she noted. For round two, I purposefully picked the wrong color, curious to see how she’d react. A secret, knowing smile crept across her face for an instant, but she was careful not to break character. “Incorrect response.”
Next, she gave me a mirror. “Look Lucy, it’s your favorite object.”
I looked at my chimp face, feeling the dichotomy between my perception of myself and the reality of my physical appearance. It hit me that this must be how Lucy felt every day—human, despite her reflection.
Arrison pulled car keys out of the box, and inspected them with surprise and guilt, noting how nasty she’d been while berating her cleaning lady for stealing them. She began to ramble about the CVS card hanging from her keychain, about how corporations use the guise of membership as a way to track people.
This is where she lost me. Although Arrison acts with genuine enthusiasm and emotion, her tangential conspiracy theory and story about the maid made me hesitate. Was this Arrison or Janis speaking, I wondered? Why would Janis have a maid in Gambia? And who cares about CVS when you’re in the middle of the jungle? Perhaps Arrison meant to emphasize the psychological strain that Janis faced during her long stay with Lucy. But these digressions brought me out of the illusion, a disappointing end to a performance that otherwise had me completely enraptured.
Before I knew it, our time had expired. I crossed back to the other side of the curtain, give my mask back, becoming human once again. I noticed patrons patiently waiting on the other side of curtain with headphones on, coloring in coloring books on a table covered in objects that Lucy liked: hair clips, Playgirl magazines, martini glasses, little chimpanzee sized dresses. It felt like walking into Lucy’s playground. I put the headphones on, and listened as Arrison’s voice documented Lucy’s transition and depression after being brought to Gambia. “She keeps signing to me ‘Lucy go home,’” she remarks. I couldn’t help but wish that Lucy could go home too.
Make Yourself At Home is at once delightful and disturbing, refreshingly original and eerily dehumanizing. Arrison’s performance, though at times uncomfortable and unnerving, ultimately calls the concept of humanity into question. Is Lucy really more animal than the family who abandoned their daughter? Imagine if one day, the world suddenly stripped you of your identity. Lucy Temerlin grew up with two loving parents, drank gin to unwind, and loved to beautify herself. She lusted after boys, enjoyed art, and sometimes threw temper tantrums. Lucy was naïve, trusting, and put her faith in places that she shouldn’t have—perhaps she was more human than the rest of us.
Baltimore Annex Theater. 1 North Avenue, Baltimore. MD.
Julianne Wilson is a writer, filmmaker, and beach bum from Rowayton, CT.