Editors' pick

The Green Bird


Editorial Review

Review: Constellation Theatre Company’s ‘The Green Bird’ at Source

By Celia Wren
May 12, 2011

Let other designers take credit for the garb on Parisian catwalks and the frocks recently sported in London by some chicks named Kate and Pippa: Those fashion hotshots haven’t helped forge a brand-new world, as Kendra Rai has with her costumes for Constellation Theatre Company’s entrancing production of Carlo Gozzi’s “The Green Bird.”

Extravagant and brilliantly colored, whimsical yet referencing the commedia dell’arte tradition that influenced this 18th-century Italian play, Rai’s inventions conjure up a realm of carnivalesque splendor and lunacy that seems a natural home for Gozzi’s sprawling fairy tale. Not that the designer is the only contributor to this compelling vision, which also benefits from A.J. Guban’s incantatory lighting, composer Tom Teasley’s evocative score and director Allison Arkell Stockman’s eye for pace, movement and synthesis.

A flamboyant splicing of fairground clowning and once-upon-a-time narrative tropes, with a little social satire tossed in for good measure, “The Green Bird” tells of orphaned twins, singing apples, a dysfunctional monarchy, a lascivious sausage seller, talking statues and a lovesick green bird — and that’s just for starters. The Constellation production, which uses a translation by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery, sensibly grounds this rococo concoction with a set that suggests complexity without embodying it: Curving colored lines swoop across a bare floor, echoing the snaking metal supports of the raised bandstand at the back of the stage. (Guban is scenic designer.)

Two-time Helen Hayes Award winner Teasley performs his richly percussive underscoring and incidental music on this bandstand. And it’s here, too — clinging to the vertical supports — that we often see the Green Bird (Rex Daugherty), a gracefully prancing figure with a halo of emerald feathers and gauzy wings so iridescent that they’d spark envy in a peacock.

Daugherty’s birdlike yet balletic capering exemplifies the production’s flavorful physicality. The pig-snouted sausage vendor Truffaldino (Matthew Wilson) bounces on his grotesquely swollen stomach as if it were made of rubber, while his wife Smeraldina (Katie Atkinson) scuttles around like an overworked beetle. The gullible king Tartaglia (John-Michael MacDonald) — who resembles a nutcracker doll in his bright red coat — shoos a subject from his presence with jumping straight-legged kicks. And the delectably villainous Queen Tartagliona (Nanna Ingvarsson) vamps and smirks like a Cruella de Vil who happens to have studied hand-to-hand combat and pole dancing.

The stylized movement contributes to the show’s artful exoticism, which reaches its peak in moments when motion and design synchronize to create magical transformations and epiphanies. For instance, when the queen of the statues (Misty Demory) makes an entrance, her gray dress and hair decked out with fluorescent ribbons, the production’s lighting turns blue and green, while synthesizer sounds and a throbbing bass line in Teasley’s score suggest the high-voltage enchantment that has animated stone.

Outlandish though it often is, Gozzi’s yarn has a moral and political dimension. Largely driven by greed, pride and hardheartedness (“Poetry is its own reward, but so is money!” the conniving versifier Brighella — portrayed by Graham Pilato — observes), the buffoonish characters ultimately learn the value of virtue, while social reversals yield to hierarchy and traditional family bonds. With a key plotline about solipsistic twins (portrayed with flair by Ashley Ivey and Emma Crane Jaster) who love to read and spout philosophy, the play twits simplistic dogmatism, to boot.

But who wants to focus on the play’s ideology when you can marvel at Rai’s gorgeous and witty costumes — Brighella’s purple-green-and-gold outfit, say, or the potholder and dishrag hooked to a wire bustle around Smeraldina’s patchwork skirt? A bare-bones rendering of “The Green Bird” might feel long and tedious, but this version is dressed for success.

By Carlo Gozzi, translated by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery. Adapted and directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; assistant director, Leigh Jameson; fight direction, Matthew Wilson; properties design, Samina Vieth; puppet design, Ksenya Litvak; mask design, Lauren Klamm; assistant costume designer, Anna St. Germain; assistant lighting designer, Derek Jones. About 2 1 / 2 hours.

'Green Bird' costume designer a feather in Constellation's cap

By Stephanie Merry
Thursday, May 5, 2011

Constellation Theatre Company knows how to light up the stage with outlandish design elements. The group's 2008 incarnation of Brecht's fantastical "The Good Woman of Setzuan" drew inspiration from Chinese opera, while peacock feather-bedecked Furies proved a stunning addition to the company's "Oresteia."

But even by Constellation standards, its latest production,"The Green Bird," promises vibrant fireworks, thanks to costume designer Kendra Rai, whose work on the company's epic "The Ramayana" was praised by Washington Post theater critic Celia Wren as sumptuous and ingenious.

"She has an amazing imagination," says artistic director Allison Stockman, "so it's been fun to let her run a little wild with this one."

"The Green Bird," Rai's fourth foray into Constellation's world, is Carlo Gozzi's 18th-century commedia dell'arte fairy tale about a couple of orphans, unwitting royalty, who were cast out of the kingdom at birth by their evil grandmother. Their mother, who the lovelorn king believes is dead, was also exiled. It sounds relatively straightforward before taking into account a singing apple tree, a talking bird and a living statuary.

" 'The Green Bird' is very appealing in its mix of comedy and fantasy," Stockman says. "It's got room for a lot of visionary design elements in terms of the visual world of the play."

Rai says the inspiration for the more than 20 costumes came, in part, from Cirque du Soleil and how the circus group transforms human bodies into something else entirely. She envisioned a gluttonous sausage-maker as a giant ball, while the evil queen was spiky, like a medieval mace. In short, her visions were grand, even by set designer A.J. Guban's standards.

"When I brought in my [sketches], he said, 'Woah, okay, this is crazy,' " Rai says. "And we realized right away that's what we wanted the show to be, but because of money he said, 'Why don't we do a minimal set?' "

Even with a bare-bones space, the spectacle extends beyond its costumes, which include outfits with strings of lights sewn into their seams.

"We have these performers who are wonderful; they are all acrobats, fight choreographers, dancers, people that know how to tumble," Rai says. "They're not strictly actors."

The fairly open set allows for movement so that performers such as Matt Wilson, who plays the sausage-maker, can make the most of his costume — a yoga ball for a stomach, on which he bounces around the stage.

Musician Tom Teasley, who recently won a Helen Hayes Award for sound design for "The Ramayana," will be situated in an aerie of sorts, playing otherworldly music in a nest six feet above the stage.

It adds up to a surreal mood and a creative boon for everyone from the actors to the sound team to the designers. And Rai will be able to expose an older audience to similar work she has done for children's shows at Imagination Stage and Adventure Theatre.

"It's the most fun I've had in a long time," she says. "Because I did have to keep that adult perspective in mind ... it was more about what's fun for adults."