I find it hard to resist a good transformation. I’ve always loved myths which employ them. In one, Philomela becomes a swallow, Procne a nightingale; in another, Zeus changes into a swan for his own cruel purposes. Philosophy is of little protection when one is confronted with such powerful physical reality, when, suddenly, a human is metamorphosed into a bird. But often divine intervention delivers poetic justice that is more satisfying than what we experience in everyday life. Who better, then, to make manifest the magic of The Green Bird than Julie Taymor, whose subconscious clearly lies closer to the surface than the rest of ours.
The Green Bird is a fairy tale written by the 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi. It is the story of a dysfunctional royal family in which the evil mother in-law, Tartagliona (played delightfully in mask by Edward Hibbert), has buried her daughter in-law, the Queen, under the royal toilets. She has also attempted to have her twin grandchildren killed by a servant and replaced by puppies. As luck would have it, the Queen has been sustained over the years by a magical Green Bird and the children were not killed, but were raised by sausage sellers in what, from the sound of their accents, must be Brooklyn. (Even before I checked the Playbill I recognized the unmistakable voice of Didi Conn, who plays the children’s adopted mother, Smeraldina.) The working out of the plot is not unpredictable. We know that families must eventually be reunited and that everyone must fall happily in love by the final curtain. The journeys that get them there are the framework of this show.
Julie Taymor makes use of a variety of theatrical traditions, including commedia dell’arte, shadow puppetry and even a dash of vaudeville. Taymor has given her actors a great deal of room for what feels like improvisation and downright silliness. Because many of their faces are obscured by masks, the actors employ their bodies in much more imaginative ways than they might have otherwise. The result is a show with exceptional vitality which blends the old with the new. Characters go from speaking in rhymed verse to referring to such modern problems as “abandonment issues”.
Albert Bermel and Ted Emery are to be praised for their translation of Gozzi’s play. Their wildly inventive, very funny script demands at least a glancing familiarity with everything from 18th century philosophy to Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Christine Jones’ sets are extraordinary, as are Constance Hoffman’s costumes. The economy in Jones’ scenic design is startlingly effective. She combines, for example, rotating gold panels on the back wall with crystal chandeliers to represent a nouveau riche mansion. Hoffman’s costumes range from the hilarious (including what must be an 8-foot wide dress with matching 5-foot wide wig to indicate the absurd excesses of the rich) to the clever (rather shapeless outfits made of what looks like newsprint to indicate poverty.) The stage is used as a canvas with the scenery and costumes painting, often before your eyes, image after satisfying image.
Taymor’s latest show bears her hallmark, but it felt overburdened by visual splendor. My companion compared the experience to eating pop rocks for dinner; it was a feast for the senses which still somehow left us hungry. The show asks interesting philosophical questions, such as whether generosity is really a form of self-love, but it lacks an emotional punch. Allegory often has this effect, since the characters are, by definition, types representing ideas, and not fully-formed characters who grab your heart. The show is beautiful to watch and will make you laugh. Perhaps this is enough of an achievement in itself.
The Green Bird Book by Carlo Gozzi with a translation by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery. Music by Elliot Goldenthal. Directed by Julie Taymor. Scenic design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Constance Hoffman. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Masks and puppets by Julie Taymor. Starring Reg E. Cathy, Edward Hibbert, Katie MacNichol, Kristine Nielsen, Sophia Salguero, Derek Smith, Bruce Turk, Erico Villanueva, Andrew Weems.
Theatre: Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street (between Broadway and 6th Avenue)
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 13 and under; strong language and some nudity. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $75 and $45 (Wednesday Matinee $70 and $45)
Tickets online: TeleCharge
Tickets by phone: TeleCharge at (212) 239-6200, or outside the New York metro area (800) 545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 6:00 PM
Tickets by E-mail: email@example.com
Tickets by Snail mail: The Green Bird, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998