nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
July 10, 2009
Kate Marks's new play Bird House is a charming fairy tale set in a well-conceived fantastical world of talking cuckoo birds, warring werewolves, and secret underwear groves. Syl and Louisy live a life of childlike innocence in their tree house on the colorful and utopian Bright Side, where their most serious concern is how best to befriend the cuckoo birds living in their clock. However, when a platoon of ants bring word of war on the dystopian Lop Side, Syl's strong sense of justice and desire for heroism compel her to leave the nest and go fight enemies unnamed. It quickly becomes apparent though that nothing is as clear as they had hoped. New people and ideas are encountered, expectations are complicated, and ethical lines are blurred. The world at large is a messy place and there is no turning back once they have entered it.
Marks's text has a whimsical poetry to it, which is well supported by Heidi Handelsman's steady-handed direction. The characters speak in playful metaphors, setting a tone for the world that is lyrical and dreamlike. This wordplay is occasionally broken up by passages of very literal and expository dialogue, though, which are at times a bit jarring. That's not to say that they are at all poorly written or dramaturgically unsound—rather I wish that the text could have remained more confidently in the realm of metaphor without feeling the need to explain itself periodically.
The cast turns in solid performances across the board. Christina Shipp and Cotton Wright as the cocksure Syl and childlike Louisy, respectively, provide the show's emotional ballast. Marks has cited her experience with clown theatre as a major influence to her work, and nowhere is that clearer than in the pair of Syl and Louisy, who fall readily into a long tradition of codependent clown duos from Vladimir and Estragon to Bert and Ernie. Shipp and Wright bring a larger-than-life but remarkably precise physical energy to their roles, rooted in a genuine warmth that keeps the audience invested in their journeys. Wendy Scharfman contrasts their youthful exuberance with a more physically subdued but comically sharp performance as the older and wiser Rita. Special commendation also must be given to young Kylie Liya Goldstein, who plays Myra with nuance and emotional range far beyond her years. Ora Fruchter and Anthony Wills Jr operate the show's many puppets with considerable skill. Wills in particular shows an admirable and apparent emotional commitment to his work, most notably with a show-stopping ant death scene.
Sara C. Walsh's set provides a clear and necessary articulation of the two separate worlds. The brightly colored and patchwork tree house of the Bright Side is brimming with doors, knickknacks, details, and textures. Conversely, the Lop Side is a stark Beckettian wasteland marked by only a dirt floor, a tree trunk, and a weathered dresser. This disparity just between the levels of detail and number of elements in each half of the set intelligently and effectively sets a tone of abundance versus lack that informs the rest of the play.
Although it is clear that the Lop Side is an existentially unpleasant place to be, the real danger of it remains unclear. We hear about war and werewolves, but the stakes ultimately feel very abstract. The one moment when something very real and very dark does actually happen on stage, it felt almost glossed over. I wanted an emotional experience, but was not really given the space to have it.
The video design by Alex Koch is painterly and surreal, and exceedingly well-executed technically, however I wonder about its ultimate necessity. Although a lovely and engaging aesthetic object unto itself, it does not provide any particular clarity of time or place beyond what the other designs already achieve, and at times I even found it to be a little distracting. By providing such a comprehensive and cinematically specific vision of Marks's world, an opportunity is lost for the audience to engage their imaginations and thus, by helping to create it, become more personally invested in the world.
Bird House is a lovely and well-executed fairy tale. The dream world that they have created is rich and engaging, and I only wish that they had trusted the audience a bit more to dream along with them.