Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
We meet Katherine, an anthropologist played by Suzanne Warmanen, who shares insights about the relationship between science and art, using Einstein's brain and other references to make her point. Based on the origins of the two words, Katherine tells us, science is the process of "separating," that is, breaking the whole into parts, while art is the process of "joining," or synthesizing separate parts into a new whole.
Katherine then dives into her account of discovering in the woods a "wild child," a human boy who seems to have been abandoned in infancy and managed to survive on his own without adult care, living as one with nature. She states that he appears 10 to 12 years old, though the boy is played by full-grown actor Nathan Keepers, who emerges from a pit dug into an earthen mound, naked (Keepers wears briefs), uncommunicative, fearful of the strange creature he spies, but also curious about her. Using a peeled orange, Katherine gradually elicits a response from the boy, and slowly wins his trust. He follows her home, slinking in a half-walking, half crawling manner. She describes his interests as sleeping, eating, doing nothing, and running about.
She gently introduces him to elements of human life such as fire, drinking from a vessel, and sitting on a chair. When she blows on a bird call whistle, he is beside himself, looking all about for the birds, until he finally traces the source of the sound to her. She introduces him to clothing bit by bit. The episode in which he decides to try putting on and walking in shoes Katherine has left for him is rendered with particularly brilliance.
Most of all, Katherine is interested in his capacity to acquire language. At first he produces only grunts and whimpers, but Katherine teaches him to form vowel sounds, then simple, concrete words. The boy comes to refer to himself as "O," a reflection of Katherine's frequent utterance of the word when observing him. He cannot repeat Katherine, so he calls her "K." Suddenly, he utters a stream of syllables that are nonsensical, but have the clear cadence of language. Katherine records these, and a colleague in linguistics identifies it as related to Moldavian. The linguist translates what O said as, "I want to be a person like somebody else once was."
Once language takes hold, the civilizing process accelerates, and O acquires good manners and notions about right and wrong. It is evident that Katherine is very pleased with the progress O has made, but of course the question is "what will lie ahead for O?" He himself wonders if he will be a craftsman, an artist, or a leader. He has discovered the concept of potential, of becoming more than what you are in the present. Is that the nature of being human?
Every Sentence is for the Birds was conceived by director Dominique Serrand and actor Nathan Keepers, who give credit to the work of several artists and thinkers: French film-maker Francois Truffaut, 18th century philosopher Denis Diderot, Austrian writer and political activist Peter Handke, and Italian educator Maria Montessori. Most clearly in evidence is Truffaut's 1970 film Wild Child, an account of true events regarding such a child, Victor of Aveyron, discovered at age 11 or 12 in 1798 and taken in by Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard of the French Deaf Mute Institute. Like Katherine, Dr. Itard rejected the initial evidence that the child was an imbecile; he believed the child had native intelligence that could be cultivated. Katherine believed not only in O's intelligence, but in his ability to develop a conscience.
While the opening scene feels a bit meandering, not really making it clear where Katherine is taking us as she lays out her rationalized beliefs, director Dominique Serrand keeps every moment of the play alive, with never a moment of flagging attention, and directs the two actors to create very real characters where they might have been mere emblems.
Nathan Keepers delivers an amazing performance as O. The extreme physicality demanded by the role seems to come from within, charged by his own impulses and not stage directions. His slow evolution from a creature living by instinct alone to a person who is socialized, uses language with some proficiency, and has a moral compass feels completely authentic. He also instills the performance with both grace and humor. Suzanne Warmanen is wonderful as Katherine. She has a hesitancy in her speech, as if carefully selecting each word to be sure it conveys her meaning, which feels completely right for this character. She projects great warmth, perhaps even love, for her protégé. At the play's end, she reflections on all that has happened with deep poignancy, her intellectual experiment having become a searing of the heart.
The physical production works very effectively, making good use of the Lab Theater's open space, with half the stage representing the natural world, and half representing the civilized world of home and laboratory. The lighting and sound design is very effective, especially the rustling early on that suggests something alive in the woods, and musical bridges are used to leap forward in time. Katherine is dressed in practical attire for anthropology field work, making her costume transition in the final scene strikingly dramatic, while the suit that O acquires as part of becoming civilized gives the appearance of proper discomfort.
Near the end of Every Sentence is for the Birds, O speculates that Katherine will wonder if she did the right thing, taking him from his natural element and giving him civilization. The question rebounds again and again: Is O better off? Is the world better off now for what O has become? What is next for him, and for that matter, for Katherine? This is a gripping play, brief at 75 minutes, but raises eternal questions. It is also a highly entertaining play, both visually and in the caliber of performances. It is highly recommended.
Every Sentence is for the Birds is produced by The Moving Company and plays at The Lab Theater, 700 1st Street North, Minneapolis through May 22, 2016. Tickets: $32 $20.00 for student. For tickets call 612-333-7977 or go to www.themovingco.org/.
Conceived by: Dominique Serrand and Nathan Keepers, inspired by the works of Francois Truffaut, Peter Handke, Denis Diderot and Maria Montessori. Written and Created by: Nathan Keepers and Dominique Serrand, with Suzanne Warmanen; Director and Set Design: Dominique Serrand; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard;
Cast: Nathan Keepers (O), Suzanne Warmanen (Katherine)