Martha Washington (Adelin Phelps), the last passenger pigeon, building An Outopia For Pigeons for Swandive Theatre - photographer: Joan Banick
The first thing I said to my friend next to me in the audience after the show was over was, “Wow. That’s some of the most fun I’ve had in the theater in a long time.” Swandive Theatre’s world premiere of An Outopia for Pigeons, which they commissioned from playwright Justin Maxwell, is some of the best theater I’ve seen all year. Some of the best writing, best acting, best directing and best design I’ve seen all year. Normally absurdity doesn’t do it for me. I need something connected to or at least recognizable as a reflection of my own reality. But An Outopia for Pigeons isn’t just odd for the sake of being odd. Directors Meg DiSciorio and Damon Runnals and their cast have found the humanity and deep well of feeling underneath all the jokes and strangeness. It’s a remarkable piece of theater. (I’ll warn you right now I’m going to go on and on about how much I like it, so if that’s all you need to know, skip the review and go buy your tickets.)
“And we shall use ironic postmodern fragments to save the world.”
Inside the Cincinnati Zoological Society in 1914, the last of the passenger pigeons, Martha Washington (Adelin Phelps)—no lie, that was her name—is fighting to build an outopia. An outopia is a non-place, a place that doesn’t exist. Martha feels this will be a place where her species of pigeon can hide from the world and somehow rebuild their shattered race. Passenger pigeons were one of the most numerous species of bird in the entire world in the 19th century, and extinct by the early 20th century. They traveled in enormous flocks all over North America, huge clouds of birds threatening to block the light from the sun. As the growth of the United States of America exploded, bringing down forests in favor of the massive development of towns and cities, the pigeons’ habitats were destroyed. Also, the pigeons were hunted down and eaten as a cheap source of meat for the masses. Traveling in large flocks made them an easy target for hunters. They didn’t gather in large numbers just to migrate, though. Their reproduction was also a group activity (yes, bird orgies). When their numbers dwindled violently, they couldn’t reproduce fast enough to counteract the decline anymore, and their numbers were further reduced. Until finally, there was just Martha.
“It’s 1914. No one cares about genocide yet.”
Another hunted species appears in the form of Charles Bronson (Kevin McLaughlin), “a sperm whale out for revenge.” Clad in a leather jacket, Bronson angrily shakes his flippers and rails against the whalers of Nantucket (and their penchant for limericks).
“I’m gonna need a place to hide out until the glaciers melt and the seas reclaim the land.”
Two other human characters stalk Martha for their own purposes. The Gourmand (Kathryn Fumie) slinks around on impressively spiked heels, undermining Martha’s outopia project both literally and emotionally. After all, Martha and her kind are delicious, just what a ravenous gourmand is looking for. Their relationship will take a number of strange turns before the story is over.
“We were a sultry and promiscuous species. You should have been there.”
Also circling Martha’s final refuge is the noted fire and brimstone minister Cotton Mather (Bryan Grosso), best known for his role in the Salem Witch Trials. He’s not out to undermine Martha, however. Mather admires Martha and her species, its sheer numbers an ominous example of the power of God’s creation. Martha’s position as sole survivor of her race makes her that much more enticing to the preacher. Cotton Mather and Charles Bronson also forge a unique bond over the course of the evening.
“Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are washed in the blood of the lamb?”
All this makes An Outopia For Pigeons sound way more linear than it actually is. Oh, there’s a beginning, middle and end, but the play never goes anywhere near where you expect it to go next. One of the chief pleasures of this production is just sitting back and going along for the ride, letting the writer’s language and the actors’ performances carry you to some extremely enjoyable and off kilter places.
“Once we found a naked man on a hilltop and tried to drown him in poop.”
I’ll be honest, the last Justin Maxwell play I saw was the Fringe production of his script Your Lithopedion. That peculiar tale of a serial killer’s rocky marriage left me cold. I was afraid Maxwell’s brand of playwriting maybe just wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m so glad I gave it another shot, because An Outopia For Pigeons is not only hilarious, it’s also deeply moving. It’s a dizzying mindf**k that also touches your heart in unexpected ways. It’s foul-mouthed but also strangely innocent. It’s irreverent, at times even blasphemous, but also very spiritual. It ricochets back and forth between such diametric opposites that you’d think a spectator would get whiplash trying to follow it. But the tone of the production is always perfectly balanced and guides you gently through what one might fear are choppy waves. In its own way, Outopia is just as odd as Lithopedion. But An Outopia For Pigeons has a much bigger heart, and it’s a warm heart rather than a cold one. It’s about salvation as well as extinction, hope just as much as despair. (It’s also about how Justin Maxwell’s titles have a more highly evolved vocabulary than mine.)
“God promised to burn us all to death and I’m holding him to it.”
Previous Swandive Theatre outings I’ve seen like The Baltimore Waltz or The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged) were more barebones affairs—light on tech and design, more focused on performance. The approach suited the plays well, and I’m sure also was helpful for an independent theater on a tight budget. An Outopia For Pigeons has enough production elements packed into it to satisfy five or six more low-key Swandive shows. And I mean that in a good way. Some theaters, fortunate to have funding for a particular show, can go a little nuts layering on things that might be pretty or even spectacular, but also might be completely at odds with the play they’re presenting. Swandive knows what to do when grant support comes their way. The production values for An Outopia For Pigeons are almost off the chart, but they support rather than smother the story and performances. The design scheme fits the rest of the production like a well-tailored suit.
[Correction: They actually didn't have a bucket of grant money for this one. Swandive contacted me with the details of how they actually funded the production, and it took 'em a couple of years... "So we commissioned the show from Justin in 2010 and were scheduled to produce it in 2012. We applied for a grant and didn't get it, so we were forced to cancel the production and push it back a year. This past spring we applied for another grant and didn't get that one either. At that point we had already raised about 2/3 of the funding we needed so we decided to push ahead with the show. Our board spearheaded a fundraising push over the spring and summer and then we launched a Tee-spring campaign at the end of September (Tee-spring is similar to Kickstarter but instead of pledging amounts of money people pledge to buy a t-shirt, if you meet your goal amount of pledges you get the money and people get their t-shirts, if not you get zip.) Our Tee-spring campaign was a success and so we raised about $1,200 there. It's something we feel the general public should know. It doesn't take a boatload of money to produce a show like this given time, thought and the idea to crowd-source much of the items that ended up in the outopia. The crowd-sourcing idea was Sean McArdles, the props and space designer. We knew we were going to need lots of stuff to fill the Outopia so he had the idea to reach out to our community and ask them to donate things to place on the set. We have a whole album on our Facebook page documenting all the things people have let us use." A facebook comment by Sean McArdles also amused me - "I'm getting no small sense of satisfaction that he thought we spent thousands of dollars on that $650 set." So a show can look fantastic and trick me into thinking it cost more than it actually did. Back to the review.]
“They aren’t coming. There’s no on left to save.”
The set is dazzling. We’ve got a scenic designer (Ursula K. Bowden) and assistant (Corinna Knepper Troth), as well as a space and prop designer (Sean McArdle), all working together to create a visually dense environment. Elaborate throw rugs overlap like scales to cover the stage floor. Imposing sets of wooden shelves of varying sizes hold a curiosity shop’s worth of oddities. Paintings and sketches and maps, clocks and lamps and radios, TV screens and manual typewriters, globes and sailing ships and antlers, stuffed and mounted animal heads, skeletons mixing human and bird bones together. A delicate metal framework creates a dome over much of the stage from which hang bird cages and lanterns of various designs. Books are stacked everywhere, including one place on the set where they compose an entire arched entryway. You could spend hours going over the set and not unlock all its secrets. Yet it still doesn’t feel overdone or cluttered. It gives the story and characters a perfect home in which to live. The play doesn’t need a space this glorious in order to survive or make its point, but giving the story’s environment such a rich treatment definitely reinforces the otherworldliness of it all.
“There’s always an apocalypse. That keeps things fun.”
Kevin Springer’s elaborate sound design is lush, but also goofy. Springer himself is working the sound board live during the performances, orchestrating the soundscape like the most unobtrusive DJ—the kind that keeps the party moving without drawing attention to himself. Likewise, Per Greibrok’s lighting design subtly follows the story through its highs and lows, supporting it rather than just playing tricks for their own sake. The use of video throughout the production bounces nimbly back and forth between being evocative and silly, as the mood dictates. For instance, the beginning of each sequence of the story is punctuated with the multiple screens on the set displaying the dying words of both the famous and the infamous (some of which are real, some of which are cheeky fabrications). A shout-out also has to go to Claire Nadeau as the stage manager, because something this intricate, with so many moving parts, isn’t easy to keep running this smoothly.
“Laughter is what killed the bison.”
Lisa Conley’s costumes are deceptively simple. Cotton Mather and Charles Bronson may both be simply defined by their dark jackets, Mather accenting his with a big curly white wig, Bronson with his signature flippers—but it becomes clear later on that Conley has thought about the details all the way down to their socks and boxer shorts. Kathryn Fumie’s Gourmand looks fantastic in her stilettos and corset. It doesn’t look like it would be all that comfortable but Fumie still looks like she’s having a lot of fun working that outfit. Martha Washington is just the suggestion of a bird—an accent of feathers among the lace and layers of fabric that cling to her corsets. Yet at a key moment when she sheds one of her layers, it feels as if her bird persona is molting off of her. Simple, but lovely.
“If I know one thing, it’s how to burn a witch. If I know one thing, it’s that God loves us and wants us to be terrified.”
All of this would be nothing, however, without these four powerful performances. Adelin Phelps peppers her portrayal of Martha with just enough bird-like mannerisms to remind you, but not enough to be a joke or detract from the character’s innate humanity. She longs so much to save her species, there are times you could be forgiven for thinking she can accomplish the impossible. Bryan Grosso’s Cotton Mather is a convincing mix of the fervor and fear of the true believer. He, too, is not a caricature, but a human being pushed to extremes, his own outsized desires driving him to lengths from which other people might shrink. Charles Bronson the vengeful sperm whale is a creature not quite capable of the tasks he sets for himself. With Kevin McLaughlin as the whale, Bronson doesn’t seem pathetic or foolish, just out of his league—easily led or discouraged by the larger personalities and missions of those around him. Kathryn Fumie has the hard task of not being a person so much as an appetite. Still she manages to embody the implacability of hunger and desire. It’s because these four work so well as an ensemble that you can imagine the group of them making this play work even without all the great technical support surrounding them. It also speaks to the strength of the text, and the insight of directors DiSciorio and Runnals in making something this absurd work as a recognizably human comedy.
“That is why I never get arrested for masturbating in a Red Lobster.”’
So, yes, I’ve talked this production to death, but every single element of An Outopia for Pigeons is so good, you really owe it to yourself to see it. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, it’s some of the best theater I’ve seen all year.
5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended
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