by Jennifer Maisel
Directed by Wendy McClellan
Produced by Rorschach Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Jennifer Maisel’s 90-minute play birds is based on a fairy tale. An extinct myth, that once inspired us, clarifies beautifully what happens on stage in this muddy but well-acted play.
Once upon a time, in the Grimm’s fairy tale, Jorinda and Joringel were madly in love, simply happy to be with each other. One day, they take a walk and get lost and unhappy in a forest. A screech-owl witch, who is obsessed with changing thousands of innocent girls into rare birds, changes Jorinda into a nightingale, but whimsically frees Joringel from paralysis to wander alone in the world. Years later, Joringel returns with a magic flower to break the spell and free his one true love.
Directed by Wendy McClellan and backed by a stand out cast, birds is a world premiere of the same basic tale in the parallel universe of post 9/11 New York City. An illusion-filled career woman, Jorie (Jjanna Valentiner) is tortured by demons and nightmares from her mysterious past with Rhea, her screechy mother, (Nanna Ingvarsson). Jorie has broken with her past life of unseen good and bad experiences. When her hero prince, James, a fellow stockbroker (Tim Getman), whose nightmares overlap Jorie’s, loses his job, he has time to pay homage to their lonely, miserable relationship. Life together, even sex, is a mechanical, routine drag. How can alienated lovers sharing the same bed revitalize their love for each other?
Enter a menacing but friendly ogre, in the form of a homeless man, Gus, (Brian Hemmingsen). Along with the prostitute, A, (Marissa Molnar), who hustles a stranger in the audience, these two street characters seem to have a better grip on the real world than do our hero and heroine, living in a high-rise dream. Maybe all four characters are one and the same? Jorie tells us she feels dislocated and bought, just as A does. James is jobless; Gus is homeless. Aware of their sameness, Jorie and James throw a cocktail party, invite and share their lives with A and Gus, who allows his hair to be cut and dresses up in a business suit. In the play’s best moments, the four characters swap roles and interact as if they accept their oneness as a family and the city as home.
The actors do a commendable job of projecting some surreal, edgy, super-hyped dialogue. Technical slickness backs the performances. Jacob S. Muehlhausen’s imaginative, surreal set, a black-and-white photo montage of New York cityscape, scatter shots of different perspectives, is plastered against the backdrop. Sheets of newspapers cover the stage floor. Street noise, a police siren, flapping wings, and whooshing wind, by sound designer Matthew Nielson, add much needed tension to the sometimes sagging, aimless talk. Silhouettes of birds in a gilded cage on the backdrop are only one of the special effects by lighting designer, Deb Sullivan.
Problems arise with some of the dialogue and stage business, that lapse into obscurity, seem to go nowhere and leave us bystanders lost in the woods. But then again, this play, developed through the Magic in Rough Spaces program literally fits the Rorschach Theatre’s mission “to reveal the relevance of fable, finding magic in gritty spaces, connecting timeless works to a contemporary audience.” But that’s about as far as birds is able to fly. There are flashes of insights about modern urban life but a lot of loose ends are left dangling.
Experimental theater is grand, but the scenes in birds seem jolted to each other without transitions. The play drags on into one long anticlimax after some heated encounters. Somehow the strings don’t tie together in the end. We never learn Jorie’s troubling past. The gutter language works for the prostitute and homeless man, but do so many lines have to be punctuated with expletives that need to be deleted? A lot of smoothing out of rough edges will help this edgy material to take wing and soar.
I’ve seen and enjoyed Maisel’s work before, but emerge from birds liking her play The Last Seder more. Why? The more universal theme of life as a ritual from death to birth in spite of Alzheimers. In The Last Seder, the patriarch father suffers from memory loss but still remembers part of the ritual. There’s pathos and compassion. Even though memory is fading and traditions are breaking down, Life just is.
Maisel writes wilder, more way out stuff into birds but leaves clutter and confusion. For example: Jorie and James stand together at the edge of the East River and contemplate water littered with condoms and tampons. No beauty in this brave new world, but so what? In its better illuminating moments, the play tells us we’re all homesick for some place other than where we are and we have to find our way home. We’re all intertwined with humanity. But when love cannot be felt anymore, we need to take a deep look at ourselves and each other before we can reconnect.
(Running Time: 90 minutes). The world premiere of Jennifer Maisel’s birds continues thru July 29, 2007 at The Sanctuary Church, Casa Del Poeblo Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Road, (between 14th and 15th),Washington D.C. Shows on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.. Additional shows: Saturday, July 21, and Sunday, July 29, 3 p.m. Tickets: $20. $12, students, seniors, & groups to $12. Call 1-800-494-8497, www.boxofficetickets.com/rorschach Information: 202-452-5538, For tickets and directions: http://www.rorschachtheatre.com/. Street parking is available. The Columbia Heights Metro on the green line is on 14th St., one block north of Columbia Road.