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Animals and Plants combines crude humor with existential crises

Two errand boys travel to Boone, N.C., to exchange a large bag of money for a large bag of magic mushrooms.

Their drug-dealer boss has instructed them to meet with someone named “The Burning Man” to make the deal, but a blizzard traps them in an area motel room. The third night of their snowed-in hiatus provides the setting for the lurid comedy “Animals and Plants.”

Written by Adam Rapp in 2001, the play portrays criminal cronies Burris and Dantley. The two men have been working together for 10 years, but in the complete isolation of their shabby motel room, their friendship and their minds begin to unravel. Without getting too specific, this play involves existentialism, betrayal and full male nudity.

Having worked together for so long, Dantley and Burris have no restrictions to their conversations. Amid their comically crude banter, the audience comes to find that things aren’t as they seem. Eerie phone calls interrupt their dialogue. A mysterious woman shows up out of the blue, and at some point, the drug money that they have stashed under their bed disappears.

Vincent Stalba, a 2010 USF theater performance graduate who plays Dantley, said his character struggles with his self-identity. His lethargy and complacency makes him feel as though he’s turning into a plant.

“My character(‘s) dilemma is that I fear that I do not exist,” he said.

Burris acts as an irresponsible role model for Dantley’s lost soul. Somewhat nave, Dantley eludes his true identity by trying to be like Burris, despite the sharp contrast of their personalities.

Nathan Juliano, a USF senior majoring in theater performance who plays Burris, said his “alpha-male” character reminds him of someone he once met at a party. Juliano said he often uses real-life examples to help him become his character in performances.

“To put it bluntly, he’s a bit of a d—,” he said. “Even for very outlandish sort of plays, you’d be surprised what the human race is capable of.”

He also said the dialogue doesn’t deal with monologues or lengthy speeches, but rather is quick-fire – giving audience members the feeling they are eavesdropping on the most intimate of conversations.

The play recently ran in New York City, performed by a theatre company called “The Amoralists” – which says a lot about the content of Rapp’s work.

The first act involves only Burris and Dantley as they pass the time away waiting for “The Burning Man.” In Act 2 Burris goes out to find a snow shovel and is replaced on stage by Cassandra, played by Anja Akstin.

Akstin, a junior majoring in anthropology, said this marks a transition from the odd, yet comedic first half of the story to the tragic events of its conclusion.

“Cassandra’s sort of this ‘caught in the middle’ character,” she said. “She’s trying to save Dantley at the same time that she’s trying to save herself – trying to reaffirm his humanity.”

The actors said the play’s weird sense of humor and quirky conversations make it perfect for the intimate setting of the Silver Meteor Gallery – a house converted to a theater room. College students will not only enjoy the play’s deviation from typical theatrics, but also the philosophical questions presented in unorthodox ways.

“The play deals with trying to find yourself and where you fit in the world,” said director and USF alumna Tia Jeminson. “But in doing that, it’s really raunchy.”

Jeminson, who graduated USF in 2010 with degrees in psychology and theater performance, said the play would be most suitable for those 21 and up, because of its adult themes and nudity.

“Animals and Plants” will play at the Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor City at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Sept. 22-24. Tickets are $15 at the door and $10 for students.