Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Power of Birds

Photo/Rick Berube

Birds are elegant, fascinating creatures; they can also be shrill, annoying, destructive, and--in the worst cases--can nest in the middle of something beautiful and shit all over it. So it's fair to say that Robin Rice Lichtig's new play, The Power of Birds, has a little bit of all of that. Things start off strong--if not a little too aggressive--as super-sports-mother Loretta (Annie McGovern) grows fed up with her absent husband Phillip (Jay Potter), a man with all the social skills of a birdwatcher (which, to be fair, he is), and takes her twelve-year-old twins Zoe and Charlie and their paternal grandmother Lily off to a new life in a new state. Everyone's talking at once as they hurry to pile into a car; meanwhile, flashbacks help us to understand Zoe's connection to her father.

But neither Lichtig nor her director, Elizabeth Bunnell, are very graceful about doing so: in case it's not clear that they're symbolically "migrating," one of the characters says as much later on. Once all the feathers of that initial impulse stop ruffling, the bare-boned flaws underneath jump out. This lack of subtlety is most obvious in the characters: rebellious Zoe (Emma Galvin) pouts and shouts a lot and momma's boy Charlie (Noah Galvin) is afraid of insects, says things like "ROFL" out loud, and quotes Google. Lily (Margot Avery) lays down her hippie credentials hard and fast--leaving out a joint for Charlie to smoke in his attempts to become "cool" ("Chaz da bomb, yo") and explaining that she needs her own Western-facing room so that she can sexually commune with her dead husband at sunset. Even Zoe's nightmares--and this is very much her play--are blatant: "I'd like to be proud of my daughter," says her dream-mother, "I'd like to see she's capable of accomplishing something." Yes, yes, we get it--now be quiet, you're scaring the wildlife away.

On the other hand, the second act's attempts to hyper-correct for the cliches of the first end up hurting The Power of Birds even more. Lichtig's script calls for moments of magical realism throughout--scraps of paper turning to feathers, yarn rolling out of birdcages--but Bunnell rarely manages to bring these moments to life, and this makes the premise of the second act too ludicrous to learn from. Zoe kidnaps her grandmother at knife-point and puts her into a tree-house decked out to look like a bower bird's nest, thinking that the bird drawn to these objects will then talk to her own father--who she clearly sees as magical--and bring him home. It's a desperate, beautiful whimsy of an idea, and at times Emma is able to sell it, but when Charlie is roped into the plot and Loretta fails to worry about her mother-in-law's sudden "trip" to Borneo, or, later, that Lily has actually turned into a bird....

It's not hard to sympathize with someone like Zoe--precocious enough to work hard, but romantic enough to believe that simply wanting something bad enough will make it real. It is, however, hard to sympathize with anyone else in her family, which in turn makes it harder, ultimately, to feel the very real weight on Zoe, which Lichtig, in one of her finer poetic moments, describes as "a sound in her chest." There is no way for Loretta to take flight, locked as she is into the role of tyrant-mother--it's not until the very end of the play, confessing that she's not actually a gold medalist in a desperate attempt to win her daughter back, that we even start to understand her. (Certainly it's not during her comic-relief-inspired decision to take up cooking, though McGovern is at least charming throughout.)

In a migration, birds know where they're going. After seeing The Power of Birds, I'm convinced that Lichtig knows how to fly--and how to coast--but I'm less sure that she knows how to get where she's going.

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