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.
Wren is a freelance writer.
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. Through June 4 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.