A Mouthful of Birds
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 16, 2007
Tomi Tsunoda says that Caryl Churchill and David Lan's play A Mouthful of Birds is about possession: it's a collage of vignettes in which people lose themselves (or control of themselves) and surrender to something unforeseen. The forces that take them over sometimes come from outside and sometimes from within; we see one man fall in love with a pig (anticipating Edward Albee, for this play was written in 1986) and a woman become possessed by a spirit that commands her to drown her child. Are these, as the Greeks thought, gods? (A Mouthful of Birds is based loosely on The Bacchae, which is why I bring that up.)
For a play about passions overtaking rationality, Birds is resolutely remote and intellectual in its approach. The stories are told non-linearly, like a patchwork—it's like we're observing the collapse of order from 50,000 feet. It's interesting and compelling but not moving or cathartic, which in itself is interesting since The Bacchae may, if nothing else, bring its audience to the same kind of frenzied climax that its characters reach.
Tsunoda's production of Birds, for the Spring Fever Festival, adds a layer to the already fractured, oblique script with a process called Soundpainting. This device enables the director and her collaborators to communicate with one another during the performance using a vocabulary of gestures; this communication enables what the Soundpainting website calls "structured improvisation." The way this translates into performance, at the show reviewed (my first encounter with this technique), is that Tsunoda and her assistants (Jessica Levine, Mark Lindberg, and Morgan Murphey, the latter two of whom take roles in the play as well) signal actors, stage managers, technicians, and each other at various moments in the show, right in front of the audience. Responses range from very obvious shifts in movement, tone, and sound to the completely indiscernible; execution is almost always so seamless and swift that, for better or worse, little feeling of spontaneity is engendered.
For me, ultimately, the show became much more about observing this process than understanding how it affected the experience of this play in this room, and I wondered if seeing a Soundpainted version of a script I knew well (say, The Tempest) would be more illuminating in appreciating the power of this technique.
A Mouthful of Birds is performed without intermission, making for a fairly long sit (the show runs about 2:15). Eight actors work hard in nearly four dozen roles (they are Debbi Jean, Fred Urfer, Doug Paulson, Stephanie Roy, Sykler Sullivan, Mark Lindberg, Morgan Murphey, and Theresa Finamore). The design, spare but elaborate, is by Tsunoda, Levine, Laura Shiffrin, Joanna Lampert, and Andrew Scoville; the soundscape is particularly interesting and evocative.