Regional Reviews: San Francisco
The Green Bird
The Berkeley Repertory Theatre opened their 2000-01 season with Carlo Gozzi's, The Green Bird. This is a brilliant production that combines the theatrical style of commedia dell'arte with the formal conventions of Kabuki. It is a wildly imaginative production. The 18th Century Italian fairy tale was adapted by Theatre de la Jeune Lune which is located in Minneapolis. The direction by Dominique Serrand is dazzling.
This production is unrelated to Julie Taymor's Broadway version of last season. This presentation was aimed more to the gut than to the literary mind. The combination of the two forms of theatrical style works well in this offering.
The story of The Green Bird is simple. While King Tartaglia is away at war, his wife Ninetta gives birth to twins. The King's evil mother, Tartagliona, reports to the King that Ninetta has actually given birth to puppies; she has Ninetta buried alive under the drains of the palace kitchen and orders the twins to be killed. While Ninetta is miraculously kept alive by a magical green bird, the twins, Renzo and Barbarina, are secretly spared from death and raised by a poor sausage seller, Traffaldino, and his wife, Smeraldina. However, after eighteen years, the twins discover that the sausage seller and his wife are not their real parents and they set off to find their fortunes. Now did I say simple, well maybe a little complicated. I am only telling you the beginning of the tale. It gets wilder, with singing apples, magical peddlers, and grouchy statues that the twins encounter on their unpredictable adventure.
The twins start out as junior philosophers who say that they will stay true to themselves and never crave material things; however, as their adventures continue, they suddenly become yuppies wearing the same modern clothing, craving lattes and knowing all about on-line buying. Throughout the play, they encounter various wondrous sights, like a giant puppet head who is a wise soothsayer, a nude statue that comes to life and the evasive green bird. There is an enormous snake when they arrive in the desert Garden of Eden and (wouldn't you know it) the snake has an apple in his mouth and spouts wisecracks.
The staging is unusual. There is a square two-story Kabuki background with a red lacquer frame and deep blue sliding panels, and a very large, square sandbox in front where much of the action takes place. There are trapdoors beneath the white sand and some of the characters enter and exit through these trapdoors; very ingenious. The lighting is superb and the Japanese inspired costumes are dazzling.
The actors are consistently wonderful, with superb acting on the part of Brian Baumgartner as the mountainous Tartagliona who is strikingly funny as the evil mother. He acts in the stylized manner of Kabuki. It's an amazing performance by this Theatre de la Jeune Lune actor. His voice alone is thrilling to hear.
The director, Dominique Serrand, plays the poet and narrator of the tale. He also has a beautiful striking voice with a very slight French accent that reminded me of some of the great actor- directors of British rep companies of the UK in the '50s.
Vincent Gracieux, as the imperious king, sets the right mood with both movement and speech in the manner of Kabuki, a top drawer performance. Diametrically opposed to Kabuki was the style of Geoff Hoyle and Sarah Agnew, who play the sausage maker and his wife. They play classic commedia dell'arte bumpkins and project much earthy humor that is true to the style. Both are splendid in the roles. The two twins seeking adventure are played with much gusto by Stephen Cartmell and Stacy Ross. Stephen, a native of New Zealand, spouts with a great stuffy-nerdy British accent, and intones the word "Soopah" over everything he likes.
The elusive "Green Bird" is played by Michael Edo Keane with terrific body movement and a wonderful speaking voice. His movements as the bird with two hidden Kabuki workers behind him working his bird-like hands, are very effective.
There are a lot of zingers in this production and references to such things as, The Wizard of Oz, The Tempest, Hamlet, even "dot coms". I think this production gets the Berkeley Rep off to a promising good season. The production has been extended to October 29 and tickets run from $40.50 to $51.00. There are discounts for seniors and student RUSH tickets.
Berkeley Rep's next production is Donald Marguilies', Dinner with Friends which opens on November 10, and runs through January 5th.
Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area