If you read my blog a lot, you’ll know that I listen to a lot of podcasts — so many, that it is a job to keep up. One of the many theatre podcasts on my subscription list is Anthony Byrnes’s “Opening the Curtain“. Back in September, the B-man had a strong recommendation for 24th Street Theatre (FB)’s “Man Covets Bird”, written by Finegan Kruckmeyer (FB). He wrote that it was sophisticated children’s theatre, and that it was theatre magic. Alas, I couldn’t fit it into my schedule, but I remember the glowing reviews. Later, I received email indicating it was coming back for a 6 week run starting in Mid-February, so I made sure to get tickets.
Going in, I didn’t know much about the show, other than it was magical. The tag line in the publicity was “Because it’s a liberating thing to talk publicly about thing you’re only supposed to think privately”. That does not describe the show. Not. at. all.
Trying to describe the show, I faced a problem. Most of the reviews of the show (a good source of synopsii) gave the opening premise, and then devolved into wonderment about the execution, not the story. It was as if the magic of the execution overshone the story. But I wanted to piece together the story. I wanted to figure — in this 70 minute intermissionless exposition — what the moral was. After all, this was a Theatre for Young Audiences production. There has to be a moral, a message, a teaching. Right?
So let’s get the start of the story and the magic out of the way first. The basic story concerns a man, never quite named, who serves as the narrator and focal point of the story. At the beginning, he wakes up in his parent’s home to discover that he’s become a stranger that his parents no longer recognize. He recognizes himself, of course, but to his family and his town, he is alien. Children won’t understand this at all, but parent’s will see that as the teenage years.
This young man soon finds a young bird, similarly orphaned, who can not fly. He takes the bird, so to speak, under his wing. He ventures off to the big city. where he gets a job in a factory where he pushes a button whenever a light comes on. Light, push button. Light, push button. Light, push button. He lives in factory housing, and attempts to build joy by building his nest there, and by listening to his bird’s song.
Let’s digress at this point into B-man’s theatre magic. This story is told by two men: the man (Andrew Huber (FB)) and the bird (Leeav Sofer (FB)). They have, essentially, a bare set of walls and boxes. But what makes the story is the projections. Simple, chalk-like animated projections that move around all the walls — front, back, sides. They become magic in their interaction with the players, and essentially become a third player themselves. I’ve seen this magic happen three times before: a production from The Road Company of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency back in 2006; the absolutely wonderful Astro Boy and the God of Comics from Sacred Fools; and the recent Empire at La Mirada. In all of them the critical acclaim quickly lost track of the story, and were astounded at the magic of the projection. I agree that the projections were magical. All four of these shows represent an advancement of the art of projection design from a cheap replacement for a background flat to becoming a character of their own. But magical thought they are… and as close as they are to a character … they are part of the set dressing. They are the frame on which the story is hung, but that story has to be there. The problem with most of the Man Covets Bird writeups is they start with the story and get lost in the magic.
Here’s the problem: The story is a pretty good parable about growing up, and what you will face through life. Children will see the magic and get lost in the awe of it all. Adult will recognize the subtle message, and what it is telling them to do.
So, we left off with the man working in a factory, getting joy from his bird’s song. He’s living in factory housing and attempting to build the nest, but the house isn’t his. The owners keep coming and rearranging his nest to their idea of what it should be. This doesn’t make the man happy.
One day, he discovers an abandoned Ice Cream truck, which (to paraphrase the show) had lost the “ce Cre” and the “m”, under which someone had graffitied a word that rhymes with “nupid”. But the man decides to make the truck his home. He cleans it, repairs it, and builds his nest there. As he does, the wounded bird heals. By the time the man is finished, he is whole again. He has built his nest, and is happy again. He lets the bird go. The bird joins the rest of his flock, and is happy. The man is a little sad, but understands this is part of life. Eventually, the man restores the engine, and goes and visits his parents. He reconciles with them, understanding what happened, and feeling how they felt when his bird left him.
As I said, many of the reviewers got lost in the magic, and didn’t see the story. Some felt it fluttered around. Some felt the relationship with the parents was irrelevant. Some saw it as a commentary on the industrial revolution — a horrified notion of work, as one wrote. Some saw the imagery as random. I posit that few of them were middle-age parents of teens. One came close, positing the meaning as “Life proceeds in fits and starts, through long periods of tedium interrupted by mysterious change. Although a person may never feel as though he or she is on the right path, a courageous or generous act occasionally results in a moment of grace.”
Here’s how I saw it:
The bird was a metaphor for joy and happiness. Through the bird, the man found a way to bring joy in his life; a way to bring joy to even joyless tasks. He tried to spread that joy through sharing the bird’s song … and he discovered that everyone in the factory had their own bird — their own way of finding the joy in life. The lesson: life is what you make of it. You can view it as drudgework, or you can find the joy in life and be happy.
There was also a message about growing up. The opening with the parents represented the first stage: becoming that teen alien, and needing to leave your parent’s nest to find your own way. The man tried to build his own nest in someone else’s house, but that didn’t bring him joy. When he decided to live life his own way, with his own nest in his own style, he found happiness. By finding his own joy and his own happiness, he was finally able to see and understand and respect the needs of others.
Not a bad message at all, especially for kids and adults. Oh, and the significance of the 8 years? At the beginning the man was a teenager — figure 16-18. He’s gone for 8 years. This makes him 26. When do studies show that men start to actually mature? Not when they go off to college… but in their late 20s.
In short: the presentation is magical. The story is even more so. And, like one Fringe show I went to, there’s ice cream at the end. (But this show is much better. Both the show and the ice cream.)
In addition to the wonderful conception and projections, what makes this show magic are the performances. Huber and Sofer, under the direction of Debbie Devine (FB), artistic director of 24th Street, have a very gentle way of telling the story with humor and music (Sofer also served as musical director, and composed melodies for the music-less songs in the script, as well as musicalizing other dialogue). You can hear the music on their Soundcloud Playlist. The two men are never in your face or harsh; they present the story in a manner accessible to adults and children. They have a very relaxing presence (almost too relaxing at points — their lyrical voices just lull you). But they are just a delight to watch. You get the clear impression that their is a deep friendship between these two men, or should I say the man and the bird.
Supporting these two men, as I noted above, is the invisible actor: the video design of Matthew G. Hill (FB). I’ve talked about them before, but they are clearly magical: chalk drawing that come to life, and with which the actors interact as if they were real. These are augmented by the sound design of the very talented Cricket S. Myers (FB) [who seems to be everywhere these days]. This sound design not only includes amplification of the actors, but wonderful sound effects that form part of the interplay of the story. Lastly, this is supported by the lighting design of Dan Weingarten (FB). Weingarten had an interesting problem: how to convey mood with the lighting without washing out the projections. He figured out how to do it; how to make the lighting enhance the story on top of the projections.
Rounding out the creative and production team were the costumes of Michael Mullen (FB). Alexx Zachary (FB) was the stage manager. There also was a delightfully friendly person at the door greeting people, but I didn’t get her name.
The executive directory of 24th Street Theatre is Jay McAdams (FB), who did the announcements. I got a chance to finally meet him after the show; Jay is the founder of the #pro99 group on Facebook that has been supporting the I Love 99 effort. I’m one of the few non-actors in that group, and it is amazing the community Jay has built.
One other brief note, before I finish up. I had never been to 24th Street Theatre before. It is in this funky community just outside of USC. Across the street is the Union Theatre, home to the Velaslavasay Panorama, an old fashioned panoramic entertainment in an old theatre. This is one of these little historic neighborhoods that LA folks should know about but never discover. 24th Street is doing a wonderful mission of bringing magic to children and adults there. Well worth visiting.
Man Covets Bird continues at the 24th Street Theatre (FB) until at least May 15th (so ignore the “for 6 weeks”). Tickets are available online, or by calling (213) 745-6516. Discount tickets are available on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix; there are also special prices for neighborhood residents and children. This production is ostensibly for ages 7 and up; it is your judgment on younger, but make sure they can deal with a lot of exposition. Please bring them cough lozenges; there was one child behind us that kept coughing up a storm who was pretty distracting. I felt sorry for his parents.
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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birdies) will not start 2016 shows until August. Additionally, the Colony just announced that the remainder of their season has been cancelled, so the status of that subscription is up in the air. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: The second weekend of March recently opened up, due to the cancellation of “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB). We’ve replaced “Dice” with another musical: “All Shook Up” at the Morgan-Wixson (FB) in Santa Monica. [This also permits me to get more music for my iPod Classic (now at 512GB) by visiting Record Surplus)] The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on March 19 to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, followed by Bach at Leipzig at The Group Rep (FB) on March 20. The last weekend of March brings “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2 (this concert is open to the community; get your tickets here). April will also bring the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB), “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) , and our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). April may also bring A Shred of Evidence at Theatre 40 (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.