nytheatre.com review by Montserrat Mendez
June 19, 2009
Bird Machine, by the Concrete Temple Theatre, charts a tale of visual splendor combining traditional elements of theatre with puppetry. It is a piece that straddles the line between children's fable and adult cautionary tale and which unfortunately speaks more to the eyes than to the heart.
Based on the work on Leonardo Da Vinci and, strangely enough, Ray Bradbury, Bird Machine tells the tale of an Emperor who holds a birthday contest and demands that his town's people create a gift of such wonder that it will challenge his impressive collection of maps. Two lifelong friends—Vince, the town's architect, in charge of building the walls that keep the town safe, and Leo, a innocent man child obsessed with flight—enter the contest and spur each other on to create something truly astonishing. This is the setup, and what seems to be a fable about competition between two friends takes a sudden twist into a tale of revenge when one of the friends builds something marvelous that also threatens the security of the kingdom.
Ah, but there's more than meets the eye. Bird Machine defies storytelling convention by foregoing long scenes of expository dialogue (though the opening monologue is wordy enough) and giving us a series of detailed and inventive moments that made me absolutely giddy. There is a bird flying over a moving mountain of fabric, and don't ask me how the entire miniature town transforms itself into Vince's desk, because it is so well choreographed that the desk just appears out of no where. It is industriously artful, and a helluva lot of fun to watch.
I have to admit that this is my first puppetry play in years. And as I took my seat I was truly excited. So, I was disappointed with my feeling of mere admiration. I loved every single use of technology. I was hyper-aware of every single light cue and sound cue. I give bravos to lighting designer Renee Molina and composer/sound designer David Pinkard for their masterful work. And while I found elements of the experience rather intoxicating, it did not touch me on an emotional level. And I think that is a shame because there is so much of it that I want to recommend.
Most of the action plot of Bird Machine centers on the building of the gifts. Vince's gift, a Garden, is one that is never truly revealed, although he has elaborate dreams about it that showcase the designer's talents. Leo's gift, on the other hand, takes form in a series of fantastical flying machines, and there is great joy in watching him fail because we know it will only lead to another amazing sight. There are a couple of scenes that announce the Emperor's celebration getting closer that are absolutely charming. It amazed me how much interpretation my mind gave to a simple puppet's tilt of the head.
Puppetry often finds a direct line to my imagination. It is pure story, movement, and form. I found myself really enjoying Bird Machine, as pure art form, but not as a story, because the story is not given equal weight to the sights. If the story had only been more memorable, or at least as detailed as the visuals. If it had been given the same complexity as the movement perhaps this piece would have taken flight. But I was always aware of the story's shortcomings while simultaneously being totally amazed.
Still, I am actually looking forward to seeing what comes next from the Complete Temple Theatre Company. Puppet designer Carlo Adinolfi (who plays Leo in a goofy and winning way) and director Renee Phillippi certainly have vision. I applaud their efforts and encourage them to continue finding ways to expand the story telling language in indie theatre.