Claire and the Ornithological Shadow
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
December 12, 2008
Claire and the Ornithological Shadow, the new show from the fledgling theatre company No. 11 Productions, tells a simple story in a grandly imaginative way. Created collectively by the group, this tale of a lonely young woman blossoming into her true self is told with playful zest by co-directors Ryan Emmons and Julie Congress, who incorporate aspects of puppetry, shadow plays, and montage to actualize the story as a kind of long-form live action/animated music video/performance piece. It doesn't all make sense but, much like a music video, that's not really the point. Claire and the Ornithological Shadow is more interested in making a visceral and emotional impression based on the dreamlike world it successfully creates.
The initial mood that's conveyed upon meeting the play's heroine, Claire, is one of isolation. She regularly feeds birds at the park, where she shyly hides her face from view of the cute boy she sees there every day, and talks to herself at the office, where she seemingly toils alone. With no apparent friends, Claire takes comforts in her love of birds. She works at the Audubon Society, where her cubicle is dominated by all things bird-like: bookends, drawings, baskets, screen, stickers, etc. She even walks and acts like a bird (an impressive bit of physicality executed quite well by actor Samantha Hooper-Hamersley). But when it comes to interacting with other people, it appears that poor Claire could use a little help.
Enter the Shadow, a fedora-wearing silhouette of an unidentified man. He appears out of nowhere on the wall behind Claire, intent on befriending her and beckoning her to come with him. What does he want? Where does he want to take her? And what will happen to Claire if she goes? There's only one way to find out.
After that, Claire and the Ornithological Shadow really takes off, leading both Claire and the audience on an adventure through a strange and wondrous world where owls drink from straws, the backs of large hawks provide transportation, and snowflakes are as big as basketballs. Emmons, Congress, and puppet designer Jen Neads pull out all the stops in this part of the show, creating one memorable landscape after another. Coupled with Emmons's swirling sound design—which uses a variety of music from Greig to Simon & Garfunkel—the company's evocative manifestation of the shadow world is a surreal trip for the senses that is part animated film, part music video. Imagine something along the lines of The Beatles' film Yellow Submarine, and you'll understand what I mean.
Hooper-Hamersley and co-star Mitchell Conway do an excellent job showcasing their skills as physical storytellers. Hooper-Hamersley easily conveys Claire's inner life with the way she enacts the character's everyday routines. Whether she's ritualistically preparing to feed some birds or haphazardly stuffing envelopes, Claire's shyness and insecurity manifests nicely under Hooper-Hamersley's vivid use of behavior. As the Shadow, Conway pulls off a similar feat, giving clear-cut kindness and curiosity to a character that is nothing more than...well, a shadow. Just because the role is less specific doesn't stop Conway from fleshing it out. (He also does double duty as the composer of the production's lovely incidental music.)
There are, of course, moments when the show slips—such as the occasional self-indulgence that is the hallmark of many young artists trying to find their sea legs—but they are few and far between. More than anything else, Claire and the Ornithological Shadow is a show that believes in magic, which, in my book, is a conviction one can never get enough of. The sweetness of No. 11's vision and the way it comes to fruition already distinguishes this young company from the rest of the pack. Catch a ride from them on the wings of this whimsical production and take a gratifying flight of fancy.