Fairy tales and philosophy should make for strange bedfellows, and, at least in theory, even stranger bedtime stories. But in Constellation Theatre Company’s wondrous production of the 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird, the two cozy up with remarkable affinity. Like all good relationships, they also bring things out in each other that even their best friends never would have guessed were there. Constellation’s artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman adapted and directs, commedia dell’arte-style, with not simply a creative thirst that drinks in fantasy, but gives the play the power to make audiences drunk on it.
We enter to the accompaniment of an insistent tribal drumbeat from an indeterminate source. Feeling a bit like birds ourselves, we peer down at the stage from our aerial seats. A white linoleum floor is covered with huge loops and circles drawn in primary colors, as if a happy giant five-year-old has been let loose on it with a box of gargantuan Crayolas.
The music has expanded to include Middle East-infused melodic elements along with the percussive. Perched high above, shadowed in a dusky twilight on a platform supported by winding wrought iron stairs in pale aqua on either side, its Slinky-like swirls echoing the floor design, is the one-man band of Helen Hayes Award winning musician Tom Teasley. The sound of drums, recorder and keyboard synthesizer and Teasley’s scat vocals, alternately punctuating and underlining the characters’ actions, will accompany us on the journey we are about to take into the world created by the Venetian playwright three centuries ago, a world that has not lost its power to enchant — and when you’re not looking, instruct.
We are in the land of Monterotondo, ruled by the not-too-swift monarch King Tartaglia (John-Michael MacDonald). While he’s away, his evil mother, Tartagliona (Nanna Ingvarsson), whose cruelty is of biblical proportions, her salt-and-pepper hair twisted up into horns, her red-tasseled boobs bouncy in her black-and-red satin dress, orders her beautiful daughter-in-law Ninetta (Katy Carkuff, in innocent white and gold) to be locked in the cellar and her newborn twins thrown into the river.
But the past, as the saying goes, is prelude; what we have just seen took place eighteen years before. We are next in the home of the bulbous butcher Truffaldino (Matthew R. Wilson), his yoga-ball stomach protruding about three feet in front of him, and his long-suffering wife Smeraldina (Katie Atkinson). The two took in the babies and have raised them to adulthood.
Alas, no good deed goes unpunished. Not only does Truffaldino reproach his wife for devoting herself to the children’s happiness and well-being (“After 18 years, your big heart has destroyed our marriage”), the kids themselves are mouthy and ungrateful, even going so far as trying to twist her altruism, calling it “self-love” masquerading as selflessness. As an unkindest cut coup de grâce, they bolster their dubious claims with quotations from philosophers they learned thanks to her efforts.
Declaring himself free and beholden to no one, Renzo (Ashley Ivey) urges his sister Barbarina (Emma Crane Jaster) to flee with him. Oh, and one thing more: to complete her emancipation, she must promise never to love. Easy in the abstract, but not so simple in the execution: Barbarina has become attached to a little green bird that visits her regularly. No ordinary feathered friend, this is the same bird the sight of which has not only kept their mother company locked in her cell lo these many years; it’s the only thing that has given her hope, and kept her alive.
There is so much to see in this play, whether or not you buy into its moral absolutes (which are on the whole so skillfully portrayed, gorgeously costumed and either hilariously exaggerated or simply stated, you give the playwright a pass) that this writer found herself happily going along for the full ride, content for two plusf hours — which positively fly by — to be transported into its magical realm. Each of the performers deserves kudos, but several must be singled out.
As Barbarina, Jaster mines the spitefully obnoxious Valley girl to perfection, her mewling, whining temper tantrum culminating in an ear-shattering shriek when her brother refuses to bring her the two things that will make her irresistible to the hunky king. (“The more they have, the more they want,” snarls the adoptive father of the spoiled twins.) As her brother, Ivey dramatically infuses the once self-important, now despairing Renzo with sympathy, with surprising effectiveness, managing the change believably. The much put-upon Smeraldina, their adoptive mother, earns our sympathy situationally, and Atkinson’s portrayal makes her someone we actively want to help and protect.
As the evil queen, Nanna Ingvarsson plays the delicious role for all it’s worth , doing everything but twirl a Snidely Whiplash mustache and, at one point lapsing nasally into Brooklyn housewife-ese as she dryly repeats the two incantations she must recite without error to cast the spells.
Truffaldino’s bouncing body parts are strategically placed, and Wilson employs them — unlikely as this may sound — with acrobatic skill, his dry delivery making it all the funnier.
But acrobatic skill is not Wilson’s alone, nor is it the only kind of movement. Hardly a character walks if he or she cannot leap, arabesque, pirouette, somersault or jeté.
If only one thing stays lodged in your exploding cranium after experiencing this sensational, sensation-full show, it is sure to be Kendra Rai’s costumes. There are huge, vivid tufts of richly colored plumage sprouting from heads, hats and backs; a living tree, complete with leaves, branches and apples; a pack of human-sized, terrifyingly menacing cat-like creatures who recall nothing so much as The Wizard of Oz’s flying attack monkeys on two legs; a troop of inhumanly expressionless plaster warriors in full Roman regalia; the terrifyingly sleek Serpentino, deadly black from head to toe; the handsome king, his regal garb straight out of a pack of playing cards; the sinuously swirling Arabian dancer in turquoise and violet, voluptuously twirling eight-foot scarves of rippling chiffon. (Not to mention the eponymous Green Bird. But he shall remain a mystery – at least until you see the play.) All this, in addition to the previously mentioned bouncing boobs, bulbous gut, and angel’s gowns delicately threaded with tiny fluorescent lights.
Light. Did someone say light? There’s that striking spot where A.J. Guban’s spot casts a circle of cage-like shadows . . .
The Green Bird
by Carlo Gozzi, as translated by Albert Bermel & Ted Emery
Directed and Adapted by Allison Arkell Stockman
Produced by Constellation Theatre Company
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
Running time: 2 hours 30minutes with 1 intermission
- Elizabeth Ward . ThePinkLineProject
- Doug Rule . Metro Weekly
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
- Celia Wren . Washington Post
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC