Arts Editor Grace Novarr attended Zoo Story, a one-act play, performed by the Sti Cazzi Players on Saturday night. 

On Saturday night, the second floor of the ADP house had been turned into the scene of a party. That’s not unusual—but this party was different; it was the set for a production of Edward Albee’s classic one-act play Zoo Story, performed by the Sti Cazzi Players, Columbia’s recently-formed unofficial experimental performance group. In the spring, Bwog attended their inaugural performance, Sam Shepard’s and Patti Smith’s Cowboy Mouth, which also ran at ADP. This latest production was directed by Milly Hopkins (CC ‘25).

Zoo Story, an absurdist classic, follows two men who meet each other on a Central Park bench after one of them has just been to the zoo. In the Sti Cazzi Players’ version, two women encounter each other in the basement of a party. Petra (Rosalind Joyce, BC ‘24) is trying to read when Jenny (Susannah Yezzi, CC ‘24) arrives out of nowhere and changes the course of the evening. The differences between the women are clear immediately: Petra is a staid, placid woman, whom we quickly learn is married, with kids, cats, and parakeets; Jenny lives in the back upper room of a four-story brownstone, where she is terrorized by her landlady and the landlady’s dog. She dates men, but never for more than an hour at a time. She is clearly going through something, and it’s unclear at first if she’s zany or simply crazy.

Zoo Story is the kind of play that prompts the question: is this character insane or does she actually have the world we live in figured out better than the rest of us do? Yezzi’s portrayal of Jenny was nothing short of a tour de force as she made the erratic character’s pain palpable, her strange worldview enticing, her absurdity seductive. As Jenny unfolds herself to Petra, we see Petra go from alarmed, to enchanted, allured, inquisitive—and then right back to alarmed by the end, mirroring the audience’s reaction. Jenny has just come from the Central Park Zoo, and though she really wants to tell Petra why, first she needs to give a lot of backstory. 

The production’s set design and use of props were inspired, continuing the balance between realism and absurdity. Jenny waves a papier-mache dog mask around when telling the story of her strange relationship with her landlady’s dog, whom she ultimately decided to kill with an unsuccessful poisoning plot. She eventually puts the mask onto Petra’s head, and as Jenny stares into Petra’s eyes while emotionally describing her deep desire to connect with the animal, Petra becomes the dog, in Jenny’s eyes and the audience’s. Joyce played her part with a quiet grace that subtly communicated her fears and desires: she was irresistibly attracted to the excitement Jenny offered, but ultimately unwilling to fully enter into the absurdist fantasy she offered. Jenny repeatedly calls Petra a “vegetable,” insulting her commitment to her marriage and her pets, and Petra seems to be proving her wrong by physically responding to Jenny’s incitements. 

Yet Jenny pushes Petra too far when she literally pushes her off the couch they’re sitting on. Petra begins to rigidly defend her spot on the bench, and Jenny challenges her to fight for it, giving her a knife so they’ll be “evenly matched.” Then Jenny charges at Petra’s knife while she clutches it in horror, impaling herself. As Jenny expires on the bench, she tells a fleeing Petra: “You’re not really a vegetable; you’re an animal.”  

The already-poignant show was heightened by inspired lighting design, props, and blocking choices. The actors made good use of the space, as Petra stayed anchored on the couch while Jenny moved around the rest of the party-basement set, hiding herself behind a sheet, playing a few plunking chords on the piano, and acting out the episode with the dog on the staircase, saturated with purple lighting. What could have been a simple, minimalistic production ended up feeling lavishly imagined, a fully-inhabited world. Zoo Story was more than just a one-act play; it was a whole universe, with its own logic and parameters—the length of a couch, the space of an evening. With just a three-person team behind it, Zoo Story was nevertheless one of the best performances I’ve seen all semester. 

Header image courtesy of the Sti Cazzi Players