Rough ride 

UM's Tongue of a Bird fails to fly

After feasting on fermented fruit, drunken birds often crash into windows, unable to discern air from glass. That moment when feathered body strikes pane with a sickening thud always seems hard to shake. For one thing, you can't help but think of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. And there's the guilt: that our humanmade structures inadvertently inflict harm on the natural world. If you don't recognize the sound right away, it's easy to feel a flutter of panic at the disturbing thwack, the sudden collision creating an unnatural disturbance in the otherwise familiar chain of daily events. It's downright unsettling.

Maybe that's because birds already carry a history of metaphor and meaning. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" brims with supernatural tones. In European and native mythology, crows and ravens symbolize death—sometimes with positive spiritual undertones and other times more negative. In literature, birds accompany demons, pirates and vampires. They serve as protectorates, and other times they cause harm (as in poking one's eyes out). Their flight represents independence, or the fleetingness of life.

click to enlarge Suzanne Gutierrez, left, and Kristen Beckmann star in UM’s production of Tongue of a Bird.
  • Suzanne Gutierrez, left, and Kristen Beckmann star in UM’s production of Tongue of a Bird.

That birds, in general, are fraught with symbolism makes them an easy target for storytelling. Insert birds into almost any tale, and you've got instant profundity—or so it seems. That's the case in playwright Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird, a dramatic play that uses birds to symbolize memory, captivity, madness and freedom. In the story, search-and-rescue pilot Maxine embarks on a mission to find a missing girl. But it's immediately clear that Maxine's also searching, figuratively, for the girl she once was. She's sifting through the caverns of her memories, piecing together one fateful night, trying to find a way to put her broken self back together.

While staying at her Polish grandmother's house, a bird gets stuck in a chimney. The thud of its body becomes something like a buried memory trying to resurrect itself. And the bird's trapped state seems to symbolize the anxiety, fear and oppression of the play's characters. Meanwhile, two ghosts (or are they memories?) of Maxine's dead mother and the missing girl (or is it Maxine's young self?) hover about, tormenting Maxine. Her grandmother, trapped in her own world, won't help her remember.

In theory, Tongue of a Bird seems like it could work. And there are moments in UM's production of the play, directed by John Kenneth DeBoer, where the story almost gets off the ground. Kristen Beckmann as Maxine hits the tone head-on when her otherwise ruggedly defiant character falters at the sound of a bird thudding against the walls. "What is that—a bird?" she says with just the right twinge of uneasiness. But during her monologues she gets mired in McLaughlin's flowery, overwritten musings. So, too, do all the characters unfortunate enough to have to recite the play's affected proclamations. For instance, Bridget Smith, as Maxine's ghostly mother Evie, is forced to spout awkward, unnatural lines like, "Better if it's white. Snow. Better," as well as pretentious observations about the nature of birds and their tongues.

Whether it's the over-ripeness of McLaughlin's lofty poetics or the sloppiness of UM's production, the play seems off-kilter from the beginning. Suzanne Gutierrez as Dessa, the mother of the missing girl, storms around in two-dimensional anger, interrupting people in the stilted fashion that actors do during a staged reading. Beckmann also doesn't allow her anger and grief to well up in a natural way. And Smith delivers her ghostly speeches to Beckmann like tirades, which makes her eventual switch to tenderness all the more mystifying. The real moments seem to happen intermittently: when Dessa and Maxine fly over the Adirondacks together, bonding and bantering with each other while still maintaining an appropriate focus on Dessa's missing daughter.

The problem is, only a quarter of the way through the play, the drama peaks. Though the second act seems more in sync and natural, by then it's too late. The characters have already laid out their emotional cards and are forced to try to maintain the tension until the bitter end. And it doesn't work. Drama turns into melodrama, and it becomes harder to sincerely get on board with all the continuous crying and emoting.

At least Hannah Paton, who plays Maxine's grandmother, sets herself apart from the rest of the cast by being the only actor to consistently play her role with any nuance. Instead of haphazardly heaving her emotions at the audience, she lets grief, outrage and fear lie just beneath her delivery. When she does burst out with dramatics, they feel natural and earned.

Tongue of a Bird reveals some rich narrative threads—rope and tree imagery dots the dialogue. But the heavy-handedness, the unraveling that happens before the audience has really gotten its bearings, rings false. Not to mention, it's exhausting to watch. By the end, the bird thumps no longer resonate. The play becomes nothing more than a bumpy ride, one without an arc and with nowhere to land.

Tongue of a Bird continues at the Masquer Theatre in the UM PARTV Center Thursday, March 25, through Saturday, March 27, at 7:30 PM nightly. $14/$12 seniors and students.

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