The Blue Bird
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
December 21, 2007
Can happiness be found, or even located, if we look hard enough? The Blue Bird, adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck's play by Stanton Wood and Lori Ann Laster, tells us that we not only have to look, we must be willing to open our eyes and see. Urban Stages presents this enchanting holiday tale, which illuminates a journey toward love, friendship, and that seemingly illusive and ephemeral thing called happiness.
When the show starts, it is very much in the vein of a play for children. We see a girl, Martha, fretting over the certainty of not getting those fancy gifts all her friends are sure to get—an iPod, a cell phone, you name it. Her father has passed away and she and her mother have very little money. Martha can't sleep. She plays her video games endlessly. We see her cat, Mingus, and dog, Maggie—on stage as puppets handled by two actors. Soon a witch appears to send this unhappy girl onto a magical journey, for a blue bird that will help Martha's best friend Leah, who is seriously ill.
But the show's child-friendliness is only part of its charm; the poetic language and the use of computerized media with avant-garde graphic design quickly plunge us into a mysterious world of lavish imagination and dark verve. Metaphors abound for those who are inclined to go deep. The witch first gives Martha a hat that is enchanted, to help her "see the soul of things." Mingus and Maggie are given the ability to talk, and will accompany Martha on her quest. They have to go through the "Angry Forest of the True Things," it having been harmed by humans. Then they venture into the "Land of Luxury," where they get lost while the blue bird is nowhere in sight.
There will be more stops before the journey's end. Mingus's greed and selfishness will get them into trouble, and Maggie's loyalty and kindness will get them out of it. Martha sees her father again, and turns down the chance to have all her painful memories erased. But does the gang find the blue bird of happiness in the end? For those who are not familiar with the story, I will leave it for them to find out on their own.
Springing from age-old lore, the biggest virtue of the show is shaking off the high-mindedness that smothers many a children's story. With exuberance and at times wicked humor, The Blue Bird achieves something irresistible: an adventure that is genuinely fun to embark on. It deals with death, grief, poverty, alienation, and fear, but it is never gloomy or self-conscious. The other half of the success comes from the renowned Russian avant-garde artist Andrey Bartenev's scenic and costume design. By marrying high-tech with high art, the familiar tale emanates as something strikingly new. Sharing the credit for creating its magic realism is Josh Bradford (lighting design), Colm Clark (original music and sound design), Raquel Davis (associate lighting designer), Alex Koch (video design), and David Thomas (sound design).
The acting, though sometimes lacking subtlety, is full of spirit. The most captivating is Maureen Silliman's witch/fairy; she approaches her character at once with calm solemnity and delight. Heath Cullens's direction is confident and fully engaging, drawing the audience effortlessly into the brightly heightened reality of a fairy tale.
So what is happiness? The fairy tells Martha, "The journey is what allows you to see it." Among the audience with me were quite a few children who were very enthusiastic about the show. I am sure they saw even more than I did.