Most artistic directors aren’t running around onstage with an owl puppet minutes after giving the opening curtain speech. But that’s Marcus Kyd for you, an actor-manager whose efforts with the Taffety Punk crowd over on Capitol Hill are increasingly paying dividends — and who, incidentally, makes a really good owl.
For the world premiere of Owl Moon, he’s joined by a cast of Taffety Punk regulars — Tonya Beckman Ross, Kimberly Gilbert, Joel David Santner, and Esther Williamson, under Lise Bruneau’s direction — who succeed, for the most part, in capturing the eccentric humor of Liz Maestri’s script. It’s a shaky exercise, since the scenes veer wildly between blackhearted crime caper, prosaic melodrama, and goofy farce, with a few select bits of choral poetry and, oddly, a round of live music played by the actors. But they take it all and run with it, finding sight gags and laugh lines in at least as many spots as the script provides — and probably more.
If you’re looking for a well-plotted character study, the result here is less than the sum of its parts. Taking the curveballs in stride — a sudden aside to the audience here, a comic non sequitor there — we learn of an unnamed murdered man (a bad man, we assume) done in by two mismatched ladyfriends: a bruiser, played with fire-eyed aggression by Gilbert, and a loser, played by Williamson, who wears turtlenecks and uses words like “rats!” and “gosh!” while she drags her cargo along through an endless and eerie moonlit timberland (the set, a snowy forest of birch trees, is nicely designed by Jessica Moretti, and meticulously painted).
The two red-handed criminals are almost caught multiple times — the richest fodder here for laughs — but we also get to know the wandering souls who keep crossing their path: namely the doe-eyed recluse Isaac (Santner) and his ex-girlfriend, the boozy, volatile Lisa (Ross), who spends much of her time bemoaning, rather loudly, Isaac’s chronic non-commitment.
It takes a few scenes for the circumstances to become clear, but Maestri’s experiments with form aren’t unwelcome. She’s worked with numerous artists in recent years who’ve cheerfully embraced the avant-garde. And even though the incongruities in the text mostly come off as perplexing rather than intriguing, Bruneau and the cast tap a cheeky sense of irreverence that holds the enterprise afloat and keeps the audience chuckling. The physical comedy between Gilbert and Williamson, especially while they’re holed up in a close-quarters cabin overnight, is some fraught and funny slapstick. Ross, while blustery, gets in some good deadpan lines. And Santner offers up a smart portrayal of a world-class ninny who’s miles away from grasping the shifty business going on all around him.
As for us, it’s not hard to grasp that a good production certainly doesn’t always indicate a great play. Taffety Punk’s real success here is in playing this nutty piece of drama tongue-in-cheek, because several sequences, even if they’re meant as genre spoofs, are either bordering on rote or just plain befuddling. Kyd flying an owl puppet around a scene change to an anthem by The Flaming Lips: why not? The big, abstract movement scene on the other hand, grandly choreographed and bursting with romantic vows: why bother? The play’s identity crisis — earnest and tender in one moment, macabre and campy the next — leaves some gaps that let good possibilities fall away. We’re afforded some back story, but not from the characters from whom we most crave it — and the context of a couple of the relationships, notably the one between the killers, is ambiguous enough to feel empty.
Still, that’s part of the absurdist appeal. Owl Moon often feels less like a play than an inkblot: what you see in it is the story you make for yourself. The hiccups in chronology, the rapid style shifts, the non-ending… it’s all in good fun. Bruneau and her cast make a lot of footprints in the snow; it’s our job to suss out who went where why. How fitting that this fruitcake fable is set in the forest, a place humanity perpetually sees as mysterious, half-hidden, full of twisted and recycled life. Not a bad way to face your next identity crisis: pull on some boots, round up a few theatre people, and take a walk in the woods.
Owl Moon runs thru Feb 26, 2011 at Capital Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, DC.
Reserve Tickets at tix.taffetypunk.com or call 1-800-838-3006
Written by Liz Maestri
Directed by Lise Bruneau
Produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.