KPBS AIRDATE: July 31, 1996
“The Green Bird” has landed in La Jolla. And when it takes wing, it floats, it soars, it embarks on a true flight of fantasy.
Fresh from an acclaimed off-Broadway run, the Theatre for a New Audience production of “The Green Bird” is nothing short of astonishing. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s incredibly well directed, flawlessly acted and jaw-dropping gorgeous.
Director and co-designer Julie Taymor is a theatrical magic-maker of the most amazing kind. Every one of her stage pictures is electrifying. She uses masks, small and enormous puppets, dancers, singers, great stone heads, talking statues, gigantic palpitating hearts — everything imaginable and many beyond mere mortal imagination to bring to life Carlo Gozzi’s 1765 coming-of-age fable.
It is a treat for San Diegans to host this magnificent West coast premiere, especially at this time. And don’t think Taymor and company miss the opportunity to take a couple of potshots at the visiting Republicans. There’s not a theater in town that isn’t jumping onto that irresistible bandwagon.
If you’ve never seen a work by Taymor and her composer/mate Elliot Goldenthal, you’ve never seen anything like it. Supremely imagistic, highly visual and visceral, it’s not so out there that you can’t get it, but it’s so quirky and creative you can’t believe it. I saw “Juan Darien” some years back in New York, and I never forgot it. And last year, “Fool’s Fire” brought a wild kind of energy to TV’s American Playhouse.
“The Green Bird,” humorously and effectively translated by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery, tells the story of Renzo and Barbarina, twins of the king who were supposed to be destroyed at birth. But instead they were secretly saved, and sent down the river wrapped in oilskin. Ultimately, they were found and raised by a poor sausage-seller and his wife. Meanwhile, back at the palace, the monstrous mother of the king has conspired to have the queen disgraced and buried alive beneath the royal toilets.
How the family gets reunited is one level of the tale. How the kids grow up into responsible adults is another. How they find a philosophy to live by. How people and statues and birds can be transformed. In short, as one character puts it, “You’ve got to study the human heart in all its conditions.”
Among the uniformly excellent performances, there are several standouts: Derek Smith as the beleaguered king who, sporting a huge, sad-sack mask, conveys more emotion than most barefaced actors; Andrew Weems, a 1989 UCSD graduate who’s gone on to glory, as the comic servant Pantalone; Ned Eisenberg as the coarsely hilarious baloney-man, Truffaldino; and, a triumph of grace and puppetry skill, Bruce Turk as the Green Bird. The three musicians in the pit also work wonders.
While not an avid fan of physical humor, I must say that this is the best commedia dell’arte I’ve ever seen. Though the plot may be clunky, the actors are agile. And yes, the messages are hammered home — “Mend your ways;” “Take your philosophy with a grain of salt” — but you’re so mesmerized by the sheer inventiveness of the production, you hardly notice. What you do notice is just how theater magic is made. You’d have to be cuckoo not to catch this “Bird” before it flies off.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.