Lewis Carroll did it with Alice in Wonderland … L. Frank Baum did it with The Wizard of Oz: gave us stories of fantastical worlds where innocent girls stumble backwards into their watershed moment and grow up from the inside out. Now, playwright Kate Marks brings us another place of fantasy where not one but two girls on opposite sides of the same world struggle with the same journey. This is Bird House. (Directed by Heidi Handelsman and currently playing at Theater 3.)
Just as Wonderland begins with young Alice bored on a lovely day sitting near her sister, her life nothing so confounding as the frustration of trying to read a book without pictures, so begins Bird House … innocently. Young (or rather, of indeterminate age… but “childlike”) Louisy (Cotton Wright) is excitedly sitting in wait with the more grown-up (and therefore completely underwhelmed) Syl (Christina Shipp) for the clock to strike 8, for that is when Kook (Anthony Wills Jr.) and Ooo (Ora Fruchter), the two puppet birds who live in the cuckoo clock, will come out and announce the hour. Louisy is beside herself with excitement. She’s baked biscuits. Syl is bemused by Louisy but calmly reading the paper … (a book without pictures). It’s all so idyllic. So charming. So … safe. You can just see a rabbit hole and a tornado on the horizon.
Despite the fact that the two women have built their house in the trees it soon becomes invaded by ants … ants who bring Syl news of a war happening on the “Lop Side” — apparently the territory which lies on the other side of their “Bright Side”. Syl, with sharp shooter skills extraordinaire but no use to put them to, feels compelled to join the ranks and fight in this war. ”What is war?” asks Louisy. ”It’s a story,” Syl answers.
Soon enough there’s a cloud which darkens this little tree-house, birds keep crashing into the window and Louisy is beside herself trying to understand why Syl is leaving her (“I’m not leaving you … I’m just leaving …”) and how she’ll survive on her own. While it’s difficult to pinpoint their ages or the exact nature of their relationship one thing is clear – these two people love each other like sisters, lovers, family, soul-mates; they are each other’s everything. But even that bond is not enough to keep Syl from going off to do what she needs to do … help people who need her help. This devastates Louisy. The minute Syl leaves, everything is turned inside out on the Bright Side.
Syl breaks through to the Lop Side and encounters a plucky little girl named Myra (Kylie Goldstein) who pretends to be a grownup . Myra appears to be going it alone in this desolate land of Lop Side where the constant wind (so much like Dorothy’s tornado) steal everything of worth from you — including those you love — leaving you almost mad and left to dig down to your deepest part in order to cope. Myra is crafty, though, she’s got survival instincts, and she wears the mantel of a seasoned leader … one tough enough to make Syl follow her every command. Together they live on the windy, barren plains of the Lop Side, scrounging for food, hiding from the “enemy” and forming a strange bond which involves a lot of military maneuvers, some drinking, and sad stories.
Myra is almost like a post-apocalyptic Annie, staved for love. ”Do you love me?” she demands of Syl just minutes into meeting her. It becomes a refrain. ”Do you love me now? How about now?” At some point the lie she told (that she was really an adult “this his how we grow here on the Lop-Side”) comes crashing down and Syl realized that Myra is still just a child, though hardly child-like.
Meanwhile, on the other side, the Bright Side, a “prophet”, Rita (Wendy Scharfman) has been looking for Myra for years. So many years that she wouldn’t recognize her even if she saw her. So many years that when she stumbles upon Louisy, lonely afraid and confused, she’s willing to believe she’s found Myra. And Louisy’s willing to be found. They form the Bright Side version of Syl and Myra, another dynamic duo of desperation, with Rita helping Louisy to mature a bit, to understand things, to see that she has been shielded in her sweet little Bird House and maybe it’s time to grow up.
The four main female leads in this play are nothings short of extraordinary. Ms. Marks has created a tiny world with its own rules, flavors, tragedies, triumphs, heartbreak and tenderness but Cotton Wright, Christina Shipp, Kylie Goldstein and Wendy Scharfman bring this world into your heart and make it believable. Under Heidi Handelsman’s direction each woman’s performance is so nuanced, so rich, so layered and textured that this unbelievable world becomes believable. They invest so fully in this reality that you find there is absolutely nothing strange about it at all.
In order to bring this fantastical world to the stage scenic designer Sara C. Walsh created one of the most innovative sets I’ve seen in a long time, the Lop Side takes place entirely on a plain of dirt which is more than just visual … Syl and Myra interact with this dirt, they roll around and fall in it, it coats them and covers them. On the Bright Side Rita and Louisy make use of it to bury something that dies. It is evocative and true, almost like another character of the play. Also, the video and projections by Alex Koch were more than just background; this was the first time I’ve seen such a medium used where it actually rivaled the recent revival of Sunday in the Park with George. Again, not just used as backdrop but as an extension … it was amazing to see characters walk off the rear projection and onto the stage.
I unfortunately wasn’t able to get to this show in the beginning of the run, and it’s going to be closing tomorrow. All I can say is, if you have flexible plans this weekend then cancel them, rearrange them, postpone them, get a rain check, a tornado check or a rabbit-hole check. Because now you’ve got something better to do this weekend. You’ve got to go see Bird House.
Remaining performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday matinee at 3pm. Read more at www.birdhousetheplay.com or www.theatermania.com.
Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at www.theatermania.com, or by calling 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111. Tickets are also available in person at the box office one half hour before showtime.
Theater 3 is located at 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan.