A Mouthful of Birds; Baring Tristan | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

A Mouthful of Birds; Baring Tristan 

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A MOUTHFUL OF BIRDS

Stone Soup Theatre Company

at the Neo-Futurarium

BARING TRISTAN

Nomenil

at Cafe Voltaire

A young mother, commanded by disembodied voices, drowns her baby and then announces the deed to her shocked husband. An acupuncturist struggles with alcoholism. A lesbian hermaphrodite commits suicide after being declared legally male. A West Indian medium is harassed by uncooperative spirits. A meat commodities trader falls in love with a pig. A minister is suspected in a series of mysterious murders. A frightened woman refuses to lend her neighbor a tea bag ("There's nothing can't be used as a weapon, even a cup of hot tea!"). Stringing together the tales of modern madness that make up A Mouthful of Birds are snippets from Euripides' The Bacchants, in which the ruler of Thebes defies Dionysus and is torn to pieces by a band of that god's disciples.

Of course, Dionysus, the wine-soaked lord, is still making mischief today: just look at any crowd at a sports event. And women are capable of violence as savage as that perpetrated by men. Nor are charismatic spiritual practices unknown today, when daily newspapers regularly carry horoscopes and fortune-tellers advertise openly. But Caryl Churchill and David Lan, who cowrote A Mouthful of Birds, have to buy into the myths of female pacifism and a society dominated by reason in order to rebut them.

Aside from the easily toppled assumptions of A Mouthful of Birds, it's hardly an easy play to produce, presenting problems for the Stone Soup Theatre Company in its debut performances. Told in a number of short scene fragments, it is so segmented that any understanding, let alone sympathy, we might develop for the characters is gravely impaired. (The story of the gender-crossed Herculine Barbin is written in sentences so incomplete, internalized, and abstract that the narrative remains unclear even after we've heard it twice--first recounted by a woman, then by a man.) The denouement reveals that most of the characters have come to terms with their moments of Dionysian aberration, but we cannot rejoice in their solutions since we have only the most superficial awareness of what their troubles were in the first place.

The highly personal way in which each character delivers his or her testimonial indicates the play may have been generated by improvisation by the original performers. Whatever, the script faithfully reproduces British rhythms and colloquialisms, as when a prison guard asserts, "That's what I say--capital punishment. Finish her off--quick smart!" When repeated by American actors in decidedly American accents, these sayings often come across as stilted and arcane. The actors' tendency to recite their speeches into space rather than connecting with each other and the audience through eye contact or facial expression further compounds the play's enigmatic fuzziness.

A Mouthful of Birds manages some moments that evidence what it could have been. The relationship between the businessman and his porcine pal taps into our own experiences with animal companions, and Joe Osheroff brings to his portrayal of the trader a childlike innocence that first makes us cry, then swear never to eat pork chops again. Dominic Conti is a pale, Pre-Raphaelite Dionysus: with his lanky, long-limbed grace, Conti comes closer to conveying that elusive deity's seductive power than any other actor who's tried to incarnate him this season. The many intricate dance sequences, deftly choreographed by director Sarah Rudinoff, incorporate erotic foreplay with jujitsu, weaving a web of dazzling, sensual physicality. Though this newly fledged company is unable to rescue a script that would daunt many a more seasoned troupe, these moments hint at greater capabilities.

The bookstore proprietress and the student in search of wisdom share an affinity for medieval romances, so it's only a matter of time before they fall in love, renounce their kin (a devoted husband and a dominating lesbian lover), and exult in the ecstatic happiness that precedes the untimely death that is the fate of all true romantics. But however simple Courtney Evans's "modern medieval love story" may appear when summarized, Baring Tristan makes an exquisite visual collage, told in wordless tableaux that convey the characters' progress more efficiently and eloquently than long passages of clumsy dialogue could.

Rachel Williams and Debi Makler make a pair of lovers suitably pure of heart and ambivalent. Kyle Parker gives a sensitive performance as the rejected husband, making this potentially buffoonish character perhaps the most sympathetic. (The lesbian professor the student spurns is played by Evans strictly for comic relief, however.) Baring Tristan has its missteps--the score, ranging from vaguely oriental ballads rendered by Brother Tom of Arcanta to silly ditties from Disney cartoon features, disrupts rather than enhances the play. But Nomenil's professionalism makes it a troupe worth watching.

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