Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird isn't poetry, though it wants to be: It lacks conciseness, the sense of language reduced to its essence. Instead, it floods the stage with lyrical phrases and poetic images, as if the author were saying, "How's this one? Didn't move you? Didn't quite work? Then how about this?"
Watching, I found myself veering back and forth between finding the play pretentious twaddle and thinking that it was genuinely significant but I just wasn't getting it. The opening speech alone would have sent me running out of the theater if I hadn't been there to review. It's full of phrases like "We hear the fly, and we wait." But then the monologue is over, and the playwright presents the central dilemma: A little girl is lost. She's been kidnapped, and she's somewhere in the cold mountains. Dessa, her desperate mother, has hired a pilot to find her, and this woman, Maxine, is hovering above the ground in her plane, searching.
Presented with something approaching plot, I found my interest reviving. The conversations between Dessa and Maxine are intriguing. Maxine is staying temporarily with her Polish grandmother, Zofia, a fascinatingly enigmatic woman who escaped the Holocaust when she herself was a little girl. But it's not long before things get symbolic and abstract again; Maxine's dead mother, Evie, begins making appearances dressed as Amelia Earhart and giving long speeches lamenting her own madness, complete with the by-now-obligatory description of shock therapy. Evie does have moments of humor -- well-played by Stephanie Jones -- but they're not enough to ransom the deadly self-importance and self-absorption of her narrative. I actually nodded off during one speech. During intermission, I asked my companion what it had been about. "I don't remember," she said. Then, "Oh, it was about loss and suffering."
As the second act got going, I perked up. Things were happening. The grandmother was being outrageous and guardedly funny. The hunt for the child seemed about to bear fruit.
The lost child is an evocative literary image. In The Child in Time, Ian McEwan used the disappearance of the protagonist's daughter for an extended meditation on the nature of time. But this being a contemporary American play, the child is never flesh and blood. She's one of those symbolic children. An inner child -- though McLaughlin is never crass enough to use the phrase. All the other characters get to claim her -- as do we -- because she represents every unassuaged grief or vague longing they have ever felt.
The script sounds as if McLaughlin had created it through automatic writing, taking the passages that moved her and throwing them onto the stage without pruning or self-criticism.
There are some good moments -- the grandmother's comments about bears; a funny-bitter patch of dialogue in which Dessa imagines that her daughter isn't actually lost, but was accidentally left in the shed; the conversation after the child's body has been found, as Dessa thanks Maxine for her help and then remarks matter-of-factly that she hates her. And in one very potent scene, Maxine imagines the little girl curled on the bed beside her, describing what it feels like to freeze to death.
The stage at Bas Bleu is tiny, and director Peter Anthony, who also designed the set, makes use of varying stage levels and employs a blue-white color palette to suggest snow, clouds and wings. The set is a little crowded and clunky; granted, given limited technical resources, it's hard to design for a play this abstract. (Though I can't help remembering the evocative way the mundane and the supernatural were mingled through music, lighting and set design in Curious Theatre's Cloud Tectonics a couple of years ago.)
The acting at Bas Bleu is uniformly good. Once she's through with the ghastly opening monologue, Lisa Rosenhagen is an appealing Maxine; her naturalistic approach provides a counterbalance to the author's self-conscious language. The teenage Brittany Heileman, her face bloodied, delivers a wonderful performance as Charlotte, the lost child. She's bright, quick and cheerful, animating her scenes with unaffected humor. Flavia Florezell has her work cut out for her as the mother. The lines don't cohere. Dessa is supposed to be a down-to-earth working woman who drives a school bus for a living, but periodically, she launches into extended flights of pseudo poetry. Still, Florezell does summon the requisite depths of emotion. Although I must say, there was something off-putting about the orgy of weeping that she and Maxine shared on Charlotte's death -- followed immediately by the big emotional climax in which Maxine discovers the source of her own pain. Rosenhagen played this climax beautifully, but I still felt manipulated. I'm so tired of books, films and plays in which the memory of a childhood trauma is presented as a satisfying and sufficient climax in and of itself.
The best thing about the evening is Wendy Ishii's unsentimental portrayal of Zofia. Where the other actors sometimes reach for emotion, Ishii tries to suppress it. And when this rock-like and resigned old woman allows herself the ghost of a smile, you want to clap your hands with pleasure.
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