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A CurtainUp Review
The Night Heron
By Elyse Sommer
In an interview with Matt Wolf (NYTimes, 10/05/03), British playwright Jezz Butterworth declared "I love that feeling when a play opens and you don't know where you are and what's going on." That sense of uncertainty is likely to persist through the end of Mr. Butterworth's The Night Heron, sending audiences out of the theater wondering just what it was all about. Is it a buddy story? Is it a religious allegory? Is it a murder mystery?
If you sit back and soak up the playwright's way with words and images, and the American cast's expert interpretation of its complex and often absurd characters, you'll realize that The Night Heron is all of the above. Symbolism, some obvious, some leaving you scratching your head, is everywhere. So is humor and tragedy.
The play derives its mysterious aura from a setting unfamiliar to most Americans, the low lying, fenland area of Cambridgeshire. As Lizzie Loveridge explained in her review of the play at the Royal Court's downstairs theater (see link below), the area's fertile soil and the proximity to Cambridge make the market gardens the chief employers and stories of witchcraft and strange goings on among the natives prevail to this day. Butterworth's story and characters while enigmatic in the tradition of Pinter and Beckett, evoke the idiosyncrasies and myths of this little known place. The Atlantic Theater, being a former church, seems an especially apt venue for the religious subtext.
While director Neil Pepe has departed somewhat from the original director's choices, the essentials are unchanged, including Stephen Warbeck's moody original music. The pivotal characters are two unemployed gardeners (metaphorical exiles from the Garden of Eden?) -- the simple-minded Wattmore (Chris Bauer giving Wattmore a doomed, Christlike intensity) and his somewhat hyper best friend Griffin (Clark Gregg, segueing between desperate worry about their financial situation and moments of comic miming -- especially in one scene when the lights go off again each time he thinks he can extinguish the candle he's lit). The men's ramshackle wooden home at the edge of the Fens is a cabin resembling a garden shack. On stilts and positioned in a way that invites you to think about the story of its occupants from different angles, its interior is dominated by blown up assemblage of photocopied pictures depicting Christ and the Saints.
To cope with their money problems, Griffin takes in a bipolar stranger named Bolla Fogg (Mary McCann, dressed for plus-sized bulk, hair cut as if by a lawn mower and speaking in a droning monotone, is as scary as she is funny). Bolla's eerie ability to spot another troubled soul destroys Wattmore's fragile mental stability. Her interest in Griffin's attempt to earn the first prize in a poetry contest are not only comic but give the play yet another puzzling twist.
The problems leading to Bolla's becoming Griffin and Wattmore's boarder are almost as manifold as the rabbits that roam the Fens. Wattmore's membership in a weird religious cult (his first name Jess yet another symbol?) got him booted out of his college gardening job (with Griffin quitting as an act of sympathy). As if that weren't enough, a scandal about Wattmore's alleged molestation of a young boy has caused them to be drummed out of such local social institutions as the cub scouts, gotten Wattmore beaten up as well and subject to blackmail. To add to the odd doings there's the matter of the bird of the title, a Night Heron, that's blown off course, bringing an array of international birdwatchers to the area and the appearance of Joe Stipek as a drugged and naked boy who, if you're looking for more symbols, may represent one of the angels in that wall photomontage or the Heron in human form.
Much of all this is fairly easy to follow once you get accustomed to the heavy East Anglian accents and to add to the local color, we have several well-played minor characters; for example, Jordan Lage as special constable appears in one of the play's most hilarious scenes in which Bella has him wishing that he'd stopped in at the cottage and laughed at her.
Neil Pepe directs with the same steady hand and eye to detail he brought to Butterworth's first and very different play, Mojo. Several of the designers who, like cast members Bauer, Greg and Lage contributed to Mojo's success, are also back on board to establish the sounds and colors and overall sense of impending tragedy that envelop The Night Heron like a fog.
Despite the overload of symbolism Butterworth's script as performed by these actors adds up to a compellingly entertaining two hours of theater. The playwright pull together so many divergent ideas and plot elements is akin to a magic act. The two plays now imported by the Atlantic Theater make it clear that, to borrow from an older playwright, this is a writer to whom attention must be paid.
To read CurtainUp's review of the London production of The Night Heron go here.
To read CurtainUp's review of Mojo go here.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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