Tongue of a Bird
Tongue of a Bird, a lyrical and quirky play by actor-writer Ellen McLaughlin, offers a fascinating challenge to both artists and audience. And it affords Theatre Cooperative, winner of the 2003 Elliot Norton Award for "Outstanding Production by a Fringe Theatre," a terrific opportunity to fly yet a little higher.
McLaughlin's play is language-based and image laden. On the surface, it's a straightforward story of the efforts of a search-and-rescue pilot hired by a woman whose 12-year old daughter was abducted while hiking in the wintery Adirondacks. But it's also the pilot Maxine's own search for her mother, lost to her when she was a young child, and the rediscovery of herself as that child. Maxine's one real connection to the event that took her mother away is her grandmother Zofia, now lost in her own memories of being a young orphan herself in WW II.
The parallel searches play out in a series of short scenes consisting of lengthy monologues and overlapping dialogue punctuated by tricky transitions. The play takes flight literally in the cockpit of Maxine's plane and figuratively when her personal quest conjures up the appearance of her younger self in the form of the lost girl and her mother embodied as Amelia Earhart.
Best known for having originated the part of the flying Angel in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, McLaughlin has said it was an image of Amelia Earhart that triggered her writing of this play. Not surprisingly, the script calls for the actress playing Maxine's mother to be suspended on a wire. But director Lesley Chapman proves here that a successful production doesn't need to be that elaborate.
In fact, what Chapman does is ground the play by simplifying the technical requirements and visual imagery. She calls upon her design team (Matt Soule, sets; Thomas M.J. Callahan, lights and Doc Madison, sound) to judiciously add music, sound, lights and color to the already dense layers of language and emotion. The actors take flight unencumbered by technical trappings.
The key performance comes from Kim Anton as the mother of the lost girl. As her anguish unfolds, Anton strikes just the right balance between dealing with the realities of the search and not being able to deal with the unspeakable consequences of the horrific events precipitating it.
The effectiveness of her performance provides the appropriate emotional underscoring for those of Korinne Hertz as Maxine and Maureen Adduci as Sofia. It makes Maxine's need to discover the painful truth about her mother more palpable and Sofia's refusal to reveal that truth more acceptable.
Eve Passeltiner (Maxine's mother) and Alexandra Lewis (the lost girl) have a tougher time. It's not clear what they're meant to represent when they intrude on Maxine's private struggles with the difficulties of the rescue operation and her personal inner search. They aren't helped by designer Mary Hurd who gives Passeltiner a costume that doesn't read as "Amelia Earhart" and doesn't go all out with Lewis's appearance to make her circumstance truly shocking.
Reading any play that's so rich in language enriches seeing it performed - and vice versa. Although you won't find Tongue of a Bird at your neighborhood bookstore along side the plays of Kushner or Stoppard, it was published in the March 1999 issue of American Theatre magazine and is still available at www.tcg.org.
Tongue of a Bird now through October 25th at The Theatre Cooperative, 277 Broadway in Somerville, MA (directions on the website). Performances are Friday & Saturday at 8pm and Sundays, Oct. 12th and 19th at 2pm. Seating is general admission and tickets are priced at $20, $15 for students and seniors and 50% off for military personnel. Tickets can be purchased online at www.theatrecoop.org or reserved by calling the theatre at 617 625-1300. There is a discussion with the director and cast following the Oct 12th performance.
Boston's Zeitgeist Stage Company, under the artistic direction of founder David Miller, opens its third season with the New England premiere of Keith Bunin's The Credeaux Canvas. Now through October 25th, the attractive trio pictured in the show's provocative graphic can be seen at the Black Box theatre of the Boston Center for the Arts - some of them in the altogether.
Miller is both director and scenic designer for this production and he scores in both categories. The playwright (who was on hand at the October 5th performance to chat with audience and cast afterwards) doesn't earn quite such high marks.
Bunin gives us one impassioned young painter poised to go forth with his art school portfolio and make his mark on the downtown art scene, one slightly less credible "singer slash waitress" who at twenty-five is already thinking of packing up her ambitions and running back home to teach middle school, and a third not very convincing gen-Xer, a poor little rich kid who's a passel of trouble to everyone, including himself.
We know where we're headed the minute bad-boy Jamie (Chris Loftus) convinces his girlfriend Amelia (Naeemah A. White-Peppers) to pose nude for his roommate Winston (Joshua Rollins) as part of an art fraud scheme. There's a lot of talk - some of it in pretty convincing "art speak" - about art and life and love, but one thing leads inevitably to another and Winston and Amelia (finally) find themselves in a place they shouldn't go.
The second half of the play picks up with the arrival of Tess (Renee Miller), the collector Jamie intends to foist the forgery off on. It turns out she's maybe not quite the fool he made her out to be and actually has something to say about art and life - and even love - that's more on the mark than anything spouted by the three twentysomethings.
The play goes into a tailspin after that with enough "drama" to keep a soap opera going for a month and ends with a tacked on "four years later" scene that doesn't need to be there. Like the artist in the play, Bunin shows lots of potential. He has a gift for dialogue and character and is able to stick with a thought or two long enough to develop sustainable action.
Despite some misgivings about the play, the four actors are thoroughly enjoyable and the whole production looks every bit as smart as the poster does.
The Credeaux Canvas, now through October 25th, produced by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the BCA's Black Box Theatre, 539 Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Tickets are $25 with $5 off for seniors/students and "pay what you can" performances every Thursday. Performance times are Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 5 & 8pm and Sunday at 7pm. Tickets may be purchased from the BCA Box Office at 617 426 2787. For more information about Zeitgeist Stage or the BCA visit their respective websites at www.ZeitgeistStage.com and www.bcaonline.org.