Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's a bird, it's a play, no wait, it's not really a play . . .

Olivia D'Ambrosio and Elizabeth Anne Rimar try to take flight.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant

Okay, Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird. We'll keep this one short. Actually, the short, short version, which no doubt some female observers will be muttering soon, is something like, "Tom Garvey just doesn't get this play because he's a man! (He's gay but he's still a man!)" And you know - maybe!  I'm getting more comfortable with that because it spares me so much effort.  (These reviews don't write themselves, you know.) Also - it was striking how, on opening night, the men who had watched the show were gathered in little clumps, murmuring to each other, "It just didn't make any sense . . . and the dialogue sounded like something out of a bad New Yorker short story!" Meanwhile the women were all enthusing to each other, "I loved how it was nonlinear . . . and the dialogue sounded just like a New Yorker short story!"

So there's that.

I'm also getting the impression, frankly, that the New Rep's downstairs series (where Bird sings through March 30) may be turning into a kind of ongoing Estrogen Festival. Indeed, in the press materials for Tongue of a Bird, the actresses themselves joke about how estrogen-soaked the play and production are. And judging from the plans announced for Elaine vaan Hogue's future curation of the series, there's a veritable gusher of female hormones just waiting to blow in that little black box.

So there's that. Not that there's anything wrong with Estrogen Festivals. The thing is, I feel about Estrogen Festivals much the way I feel about Testicle Festivals (even though, yes, I'm still packing a pair).  I'm not really a fan of either.  And to be honest, I wonder whether the people who are - well, let's just say it seems to me they may have "issues."

But then again, maybe I have issues that I'm in denial about!

So there's that!

But anyway, back to the promised Tongue of a Bird review - the short version.  Hmmm.  Well, after "Tom Garvey just doesn't get this play because he's a man!" I can think of a slightly longer, slightly nicer review, which would be: "At least this one is better than Imagining Madoff!"

Which it is. Tongue of a Bird is a lot better than Imagining Madoff.  It falls far short of being a good play (for a man, that is!), but I admit it's not actually painful to watch.  There are even one or two scenes with potential.  The premise is that Maxine (Elizabeth Anne Rimar), a crack Cessna pilot, has joined the search for a little girl named Charlotte (the charmingly poised Claudia Q. Nolan) who has been kidnapped, and is now presumed lost among the snows of the Adirondacks.

Only honestly, Charlotte is just a MacGuffin (as Alfred Hitchcock might have said). In an opening monologue - and there are a lot of monologues - Maxine basically announces that she is repressing a memory. So we know the whole show is going to be about her, and that Charlotte, dead or alive, is merely the key to her recovery from some trauma which we will discover in due course. And right on cue, Maxine begins dreaming, in language borrowed from the New Yorker, of a mysterious lady pilot (Olivia D'Ambrosio) - who, we immediately guess, must be her mother. (It's that kind of play: it may not be linear, but it IS obvious.) And it isn't long before she is being visited by ghosts as well - of herself, of course - and hearing things that go bump in the psychological night. (These deliver the few good tricks McLaughlin has up her dramatic sleeve.)

But meanwhile, in the search scenes, up in that bird/Cessna, nobody seems very interested in actually finding poor Charlotte; in fact Maxine and her mother (Ilyse Robbins) hardly glance down at the snowy landscape below them. No, these scenes are all about how they feel about looking for Charlotte. Which is hardly the same thing; indeed, the characters almost seem to enjoy chewing over the trauma they're experiencing, and when (spoiler alert!) bad news does arrive, they say things like "Tell me everything! I want to know it all!" and then brace themselves for the coming tragic crucible.

Sigh. I don't know why I don't love this stuff; why can't I get into labored therapeutic metaphor?  I dunno; blame my testicles! But I will say this much in praise of Tongue of a Bird: at least the cast is capable, and what's more - it strikes me as an absolutely brilliant date play.  Dudes, listen up. Want to impress your ladyfriend?  Take her to Tongue of a Bird!  I'll even tell you what to say afterwards: "I loved how it was like, you know, all nonlinear, kind of like a dream . . . And the imagery was pure poetry, God I just didn't want it to stop . . . and then the revelation at the end, of how she was like abandoned, but then she learned to fly?  Oh, my God . . . who could have seen that coming? Totally awesome!"

So if you like, there's my nicest review of all: "Oh, my God . . . totally awesome!"

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