With Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird, Constellation Theatre has found the perfect medium for their hyper-surrealist style in a play inspired by commedia dell’arte. It’s like a wild Ferrari driven by Max Ernst through a Brothers Grimm forest. Every piece – acting, design, script – is completely committed to the creation of a madcap fairy tale world.
A hilarious translation featuring quips like, “It’s as hard to find a true friend as it is to wipe your ass with a rose” is a strong reason for the success of this production, and it’s also ably adapted and directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. As the company’s artistic director, she’s honed the ensemble’s distinctive vocal and physical gymnastics to the point where now when I think of Constellation, the idea of a majestically plumed green bird bounding across the stage to perch and speak riddles seems absolutely believable.
And what a bird. As the Green Bird of the play’s title, Rex Daugherty manages to combine elegant sensibility with masculine power while looking like a feather-festooned Brazilian dancer at an acid-drenched Carnival. Every flick of his foot like a wink at the audience, and his first frenetic appearance is a signal that this play is going to be one wild romp.
The other clue you’re in for a good time is the witty presence of composer/performer Tom Teasley, ensconced above the stage in a kind of bird’s nest DJ booth. Playing almost non-stop throughout the play, he keeps the energy both onstage and in the audience lively. But it’s his interplay with the actors that’s really the key component of the production’s success, as his musical accompaniment weaves through the dialogue sometimes like an echo and other times like a conversation itself. With him, it’s stupendous fun and does much to counterpoint the play’s silliness.
The plot is pure fairy tale with a side of philosophy, as two lost twins seek out their parents and find their fortune with the help of fantastical creatures. Along the way they learn important life lessons about the danger of following reason blindly and of how to just say no to greed. There’s lots of physical comic relief in the persons of Truffaldino (every time I saw hilarious Matthew Wilson tumble, I kept thinking, “Bumbles bounce!”) and his lovesick king Tartaglia (John-Michael MacDonald, ad-libbing pitch-perfectly a moustache mishap), while company member Ashley Ivey does keen justice to the young lover Renzo’s transformation from prig to prince. The whole ensemble is equally good, from Emma Crane Jaster’s vain but adorable Barbarina, to Misty Demory’s imperious statue queen and her dogged quest for a new nose.
A surrealist romp would be nothing without elaborate costumes, here mashed up by designer Kendra Rai. To me, her designs evoked classic commedia dell’arte characters with nods to Jean Cocteau, the Ballets Russes, and Walt Disney. They’re absolutely deliciously absurd, with some hysterically vulgar touches that embolden the actor’s choices. Watch as Nanna Ingvarsson’s evil queen caresses her sagging tit corset like a beloved kitten, or as Katy Carkuff, encased in tree branch camouflage, makes apple puppets sing with a Sesame Street poignancy.
It’s a wonderful evening of escapism from the absurd world outside. Or is it an escape into absurdity? I prefer that world anyway.
Constellation Theatre Company‘s production of The Green Bird performs through June 4 at the Source, located at 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009. Closest Metro stop: U Street/Cardozo (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202.204.7741.