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A CurtainUp Review The Green Bird
By Les Gutman
It is as easy to make a true friend
as to wipe your ass on a rose.
The Green Bird flies from 18th Century commedia dell' arte to 21st Century in-your-face performance art in a New York minute. It takes a willing audience under its wing, and gloriously transports it in ways theater ought to but rarely does.
A willing audience? In order to embrace this show, adults must seek out the child-like imagination buried within them, and their children must grow up, perhaps a bit before their time. (As to the appropriateness of the show for kids, see Elyse Sommer's postscript below.) In either case, it's well worth the effort.
On the bones of Carlo Gozzi's fable, Julie Taymor has built another fantastic spectacle of masks, puppets and people, exhibiting the same sort of artistry and genius that still has people lined up months in advance to buy tickets to her staging of The Lion King. (For the record, The Green Bird was originally staged off-Broadway before Lion King.) It's a small story, the kind that might be the subject of a high school thespian society pageant, unapologetically catapulted into a Broadway extravaganza with boundless ambitions, the transformation fueled by the unlikely combination of wild invention and simple craft.
The play is set in the imaginary city of Monterotondo and several other fanciful locales. While the nincompoop King Tartaglia (Derek Smith) is away, his queen, Ninetta (Kristine Nielsen), gives birth to twins, Barbarina (Katie MacNichol) and Renzo (Sebastian Roche). His incomparably wicked mother, Tartagliona (Edward Hibbert), orders a servant, Pantalone (Andrew Weems), to lock the queen in the cellar and throw the babies in the river. Pantalone first wraps them securely in oilcloth, a gesture which saves their lives since they are soon found by a butcher, Truffaldino (Ned Eisenberg) and his wife, Smeraldina (Didi Conn), who raise them. Meanwhile, Ninetta languishes in Tartagliona's prison, kept alive by regular visits from The Green Bird, a vibrant puppet operated and voiced by Bruce Turk. Tartagliona's evil is abetted by a soothsayer, Brighella (Reg E. Cathey), here portrayed as a Rastafarian whose chants include a melting pot of contemporary references, from television commercials to Three Dog Night. Elliot Goldenthal's edgy music provides the underscoring, and all of this before the play in chief begins.
As the twins mature, they come to realize something is amiss, and commence a search for truth and, as happens, fortune. Their adventure (fairly reminiscent of Dorothy's in the Land of Oz) we see played out to its joyful conclusion. To describe it in detail would suggest that Taymor's often breathtaking vision can be reduced to words. Suffice it to say it includes time spent in the company of Singing Apples (Sophia Salguero, who does most of the singing, with Meredith Patterson and Sarah Jane Nelson) -- one of the most outlandish visual images you're ever likely to see onstage; Dancing Waters (Erico Villanueva, principally, and Ramon Flowers) -- one of the most stunning images; an enormous serpentine puppet aptly named Sepentina (Voice of Lee Lewis); one beautiful statue, Pompea (Lee Lewis), that comes to life; another enormous statue, made of stone with moving eyes and mouth but, alas, a broken nose, Calmon (the booming voice of Andrew Weems); and a variety of others far too numerous to mention.
All of the above cannot (and does not) undercut the incredible, expressive masks Ms. Taymor has designed for all but two of the performers (the kids get to appear in their own faces), or Constance Hoffman's beautiful, playful cartoon-worthy wardrobe of costumes. Christine Jones wisely takes the uncomplicated route to set design, augmenting an almost blank slate with wonderfully suitable elements as needed, further aided by Donald Holder's elaborate lighting.
One should also not conclude that this orgy of design elements means that performances in The Green Bird are relegated to second fiddle. They are, almost without exception, wonderful, a fact rendered all the more astonishing when we consider how much "acting" is normally performed with the face and eyes that are here obscured.
I've been a huge fan of Derek Smith since he took my breath away as Prince Hal in The Shakespeare Theatre's production in DC of Henry IV. I've never seen him better than here, telegraphing with every bone in his body the innocence, frustration, idealism and anguish of this lackluster monarch, henpecked not by his wife (effusively if too briefly portrayed by Ms. Nielsen), but by his mother (Edward Hibbert's memorable extravagance). Tartagliona's costume and persona are so eccentric, the fact that Hibbert is in maternal drag is hardly even noticed.
Eisenberg and Conn are as delicious as one would hope their sausages are, sounding more like they sell their meats from a storefront in Flatbush than a courtyard in Venice. Weems is equally appealing, as the nervously dutiful clown-like Pantalone, who wouldn't be lost amidst the canals, endearing Italian accent and all.
Taymor has nearly everyone playing "to the stalls," the broad contemporary humor and anachronistic language and references calculated to make certain this remains a popular entertainment. Those expecting an 18th century fable played as a period piece may be off-put; others may be turned off by the arrant silliness in any event. But as with all of her other choices, Taymor knows precisely what she's doing, and it's a sight to behold.
LINKS TO REVIEWS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of The Lion King