The Morning Bird
By Colleen Wagner
Notable Acts Summer Theatre Festival
It occurred to me as I drove home after The Morning Bird, the opening show of this year's Notable Acts Summer Theatre Festival, that when it works, what theatre does is offer us the chance to share together in the magic darkened space what Shakespeare called the fierce vexation of a dream. A dreamlike reality which we feel to be coherent in ways we don't quite grasp, a reality which is composed of equal parts random fantasy and inexorable reason, a reality which we know not to be real in just the moments when we feel most threatened by it, when we think, no, stop, when we know that any minute the alarm will go off, the doorbell will ring, the lights will come up, and we'll recognize that, no, after all, it was, just as we suspected all along, a trick.Colleen Wagner's challenging and in some ways daunting script was the occasion for that reflection, and it was so in large part because so much of the play occurs in the kind of ambiguous space we inhabit in dreams, where people we sort of know appear in various incarnations, in situations distantly related to others we remember more clearly, where ideas and objects acquire strange and apparently arbitrary significance and emotional weight that somehow really aren't arbitrary at all. In The Morning Bird, the most oddly significant object is an expensive Italian coat which as the play opens has just been "borrowed" by a street person, and which comes to be of inordinate significance not only to its owner, a near-hysterical woman in the late term of a pregnancy, and her doting, confused and (mostly) helpless husband, but also to the deranged and struggling woman who steals it. Doreen, the street person who has, well, borrowed the coat from the waiting room at the hospital, is in many ways the whirling center of the play, and Debra Kirshenbaum gives her a vivid, gesticulatory, voluble warmth that is surprisingly attractive. (I was particularly struck, for example, by the way she dissolves into tears over her own fantasy of all the innocent little birds being shot in China.) We come to share her ambiguous and guilty relationship to the coat, which serves not only to keep her, as she says, from "freezing her butt off," but also stands in for lots of things she doesn't have, including the baby that the coat's owner, Beth, is about to have.
Beth, portrayed with a wonderful dotty, sharp brittleness by Tracey Ferencz, plays the loss of her coat for even more than it's worth, holding her hapless spouse in what seems a permanent double bind. Poor Jake: if he offers to replace the coat he's undervaluing its sentimental value and their entire relationship, if he says there's nothing to be done but make the best of the loss he's a hapless loser. Jim Jones makes us care about him, even though there's not a great deal to him: we all know he's there to help us identify with and care about the complicated and conflicted Beth, caught in the emotional and biological throes of the sort of modern pregnancy, where, for example, it's the critical ultrasound that's really the emotional and social crux of the experience.
Rounding out the cast is John, a second street person to make the play symmetrical and, like Jake, there primarily as a foil to the focal female. Robbie O'Neill, a familiar face to Frederictonians, turns in a solid, sympathetic, and clearly structured performance in a role that is, like the downtrodden husband, something of a cliché: the good-hearted, broken but noble, practical and poetic stalwart friend, there with a sleeping bag when you need him, void of self-pity and full of compassion and mordant truths: in response to Doreen's accounts of therapy, for example, he says "there's nothing to remember that's gonna do you or me any good."
All this amounts more to a meditation on some home truths than a storyline. If I said that, well, at the end Beth and Jake do have the baby, and it's okay, and they're okay, and Beth finally recognizes Doreen (without actually recognizing her) and the loss of the coat is made good, and that ultimately not a lot actually happens in the play, I'd be completely misrepresenting it, even though I'd be telling the truth.
What really happens is that fantasies erupt. People morph into caricatures of themselves (or others), kill each other, steal babies, prescribe hysterectomies, consign each other to hell or nightmare basements. Often, though not always, the dreams are signaled by a device I've not encountered before, but which I was quite impressed by: the speaker on stage lip-synchs to an amplified, disembodied voice, producing a weirdly distanced effect which I've only seen before produced by accident, in badly-miked shows. (It's recently become an educational fad to wire elementary classrooms so that the teacher is amplified: I now know why that seems to me the worst educational fad I've heard of in decades. Where is that voice coming from, and how come it sort of looks as though it's related to the person whose mouth is moving? Is that person real? Why am I so terrified?) This is particularly effective when Doreen appears as a fantasy French waitress in a toney restaurant, her mouth moving in only a distant relationship to the heavily accented threats and portents coming from the loudspeakers. Dream sequences are not always signaled by this strange amplification, but they are almost always characterized by spookily and sometimes comically exaggerated gestures. Even so, it's not always clear when the action has moved into fantasy, and at least two or three times the jarring turn back to reality has much of the startling, stomach-wrenching suddenness of waking.
All this occurs in a context that only the Black Box could provide: three scaffolding structures tower over the action, all the way to the ceiling, looming portentously and dwarfing the characters who scuttle in and out between them; blackouts (engineered by the reliable Chris Saad) are total, sudden, and effective; the only set is a couch and table with a piece of scaffold standing in as a sidebar, and a couple of milk crates which the street people haul out and sit on when necessary. One of the scaffolds supports a projection screen on which, at the appropriate moment, the ultrasound image of a baby appears, as Doreen gives a laser-pointer-illustrated lecture, in an amplified Scots accent, about some of the obsessions and delusions which dominate the play, about the vulnerability of fetuses, babies, and life generally; about how anything we have or hope might be gone in -- as Beth explains to us later, after fantasizing that the baby she's not actually had yet has been, like the coat, stolen -- three seconds.
Even though I had some reservations and questions -- I wasn't ever sure why the height of the scaffold wasn't used more, or whether it was worth having the projection screen up there, waiting, through the whole play, for the few seconds of use it got, or whether it was my ears that made Jim Jones's Jake occasionally so difficult to understand -- I can hardly imagine a more suitable production to open a festival which is, after all, about the power of theatre to focus and involve a community, to vex us as fiercely as possible, and yet send us out of the theatre with a sense that the experience made a wild kind of sense we haven't quite yet domesticated. It's particularly appropriate because the script began its life as a reading, at this same festival two years ago; having it fleshed out and shaped by a director like Bill Lane and the rest of this skilful crew reminds us what the NotaBle Acts Festival is about. This is theatre doing what it's supposed to do.