Trevor asks a lot of its audience –namely, to believe that a human is a chimpanzee. John San Nicolas, in his role as the chimp in question, talks like a human, dresses like a human, and even existentially ponders his career like a human. The only simian thing about him is his walk, a bowlegged waddle with limp arms. Yet you almost immediately accept him as Trevor, the out-of-work showbiz chimp intent on reviving his career.
Orange is the New Black writer Nick Jone's play (and Artists Repertory's kickoff to their 35th season) toys with your perception. Sure, it's surprisingly easy to accept San Nicolas as a chimpanzee, but the play's surreal humor arises from seeing a full-grown man excitedly hobble around with a bucket of crayons, or perched on the arm of the couch to hug his adoptive human "mom" Sandra (played by Sarah Lucht).
All the characters speak English, but the humans and Trevor can understand each other only through the few words Trevor has learned to recognize or communicate through sign language. The unavoidable miscommunication makes the characters sympathetic, but warns you very early on that Trevor's situation is not sustainable. Plus, Trevor's hallucinations of his fellow actor-chimp Oliver (Michael Mendelson) keep getting darker and stranger –and they start with Oliver talking about his human wife and their hybrid chimp-human children.
The play wrings all it can out of the tragicomic tension. As Trevor falls to the ground after being shot with a tranquilizer, his hand covered in his own shit and babbling about a seal-led conspiracy, it's hard to tell if you should find it funny or upsetting, given that Sandra, held back by Jerry from Animal Control (Joseph Gibson), is frantically screaming Trevor's name. Later, when Trevor violently rummages around the kitchen while holding the baby of neighbor Ashley (Vonessa Martin) as she and Sandra desperately plead for him to give the infant back, you're really sure it's not supposed to be funny.
By the end of it all, it's tempting to alleviate the disturbing feeling of the final few scenes by clinging to the play's teasers of morality. But it feels more right to just accept the whole ordeal as a complicated mess involving well-meaning people –half-human, half-chimps and all.
SEE IT: Trevor plays at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday and 2 and 7:30 pm Sunday, through Oct. 9. $50, under 25 $25.