Flying Blind

Airy dialogue twists Tongue of a Bird

"Do you know what a wild bird's tongue looks like?" a caged Evie (Sue Birch) asks her despairing and restless daughter Maxine (Susan Sergeant). Evie's describing a secret trauma that I won't reveal in this review. "Black, flattened, moving splinters. And the sounds they make with tongues like that. Horrible."

Evie is an elusive apparition. Maxine is a rescue aviator in search of both her dead mother and a missing child, and Tongue of a Bird is an alternately moving and obtuse drama fit to burst with images of wings, flight, ascent, and descent. This latest staging by Sergeant's WingSpan Theatre Company at the Bath House Cultural Center features some crack performances aimed at thematic targets that don't fly so much as float. Issues of identity, specifically the idea of a pilot looking for her own in a family of troubled and stubborn generations, must be grounded in some pretty meaty specifics in order to satisfy us. Unfortunately, playwright Ellen McLaughlin relies too much on poetic variations of winged metaphors--some of them, granted, quite lovely, others effectively chilling--to allow audiences to get a hold on her creations.

Susan Sergeant, right, plays a rescue aviator hired by Jaquelyn Poplar to find her missing daughter in WingSpan Theatre’s latest.
Susan Sergeant, right, plays a rescue aviator hired by Jaquelyn Poplar to find her missing daughter in WingSpan Theatre’s latest.

Details

Tongue of a Bird runs through March 31 at the Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther. Call (972) 504-6218.

Power Plays runs through March 24 at WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Call (972) 650-6232.

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You can make jokes about the appropriateness of McLaughlin writing a play full of flying creatures: She is most famous in New York theater as an actress, and for one role, the prophetic Angel in Tony Kushner's Angels in America. His now-decrepit two-part diatribe had the exact opposite problem--dependence on issues and figures from the Cold War through the Reagan administration until its timeliness has expired.

For the Dallas production of McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird, director Cynthia Hestand and scenic designer Nick Brethauer have grounded her characters despite themselves. They've divided up the close quarters of the Bath House stage into four areas of action, including a cockpit and a cagelike box where Birch as our heroine's ghostly mum sits, cramped and complaining in Amelia Earhart-ish flying garb. This staging creates a nice friction with all the airy language being spoken, but in the end, it doesn't bring us any closer to truly sympathizing with their plights.

Sergeant is earthbound and typically anxious as the aviator Maxine, hired by grief-stricken Dessa (Jaquelyn Poplar, who rages just enough to give us some emotions we can actually taste) to locate her daughter Charlotte (Ellen Morgan) after a crash in the Adirondacks that nearly killed Dessa. During the mission, Maxine returns to the home of her Polish grandmother Zofia (Terry McCracken, as icy and intimidating as the wintry mountains described here), who makes it known unequivocally that her granddaughter is unwelcome here and that the mysterious death of Maxine's mother will not be discussed. Meanwhile, as the pilot flies alone in her plane looking for a tiny body, a pale ghost with a disfigured face (Morgan) makes caustic commentary on Maxine's family sorrows.

With its two sets of mothers and daughters separated by death--Maxine and Evie, Dessa and Charlotte--Tongue of a Bird means to underscore the distance between parent and child, how one can never really see the other as a person through the shady veils of biological roles, instinctual love, and that persistent, universal family tendency of hiding our less flattering sides from those to whom we are blood-bound. But the trap of this kind of opaque fantasy of grief and longing is its very subject: The playwright must be careful not to make her people as unknowable to us as they are to each other. And that's pretty much what happens in Tongue. A certain eerie sadness permeates the whole affair, but the women here never quite struggle out of the cages to which they've been assigned. Hestand has excelled before at similar material; Lanford Wilson's Serenading Louie at Theatre Quorum was about individuals trapped by middling success and compromised ambitions, but its disappointments were also very much of this world. With the exception of Poplar as the grieving Dessa, Hestand has allowed her very able cast to wander through this lachrymose dream led by McLaughlin's self-conscious and stylized dialogue. The images we see through that fog are mournfully familiar, but the effort of squinting to catch their faces too soon frustrates us.


Several weeks back, I considered myself brave for weathering five hours of the Dallas Opera's "Ring Cycle" installment Siegfried. But the time it took Siegfried to awaken Brunhilde in the forest felt about as long as a Super Bowl commercial compared with Power Plays, which has been given its regional premiere by Addison's WaterTower Theatre. New York stage writing-directing-acting veterans Elaine May and Alan Arkin collaborated for the Manhattan Theater Club in all three of their guises to create a trio of one-acts about, allegedly, the ways in which power shifts in different kinds of relationships. To my mind, this hardly even qualifies as a theme. Isn't practically every theater piece ever written, from Aeschylus to Ayckbourn, about the struggle for physical, emotional, or spiritual domination among people? This goes part way in explaining why these three segments drag on insufferably long under the direction of Melanie A. Mason. They offer up situations rather than subjects, premises rather than plots, and while the comic abilities of the four WaterTower performers manage to break through here and there, they begin to give the impression of being stuck in some improvisational purgatory with an impossibly large time slot to fill.

You can even imagine an audience member handing them a scenario scribbled on a card: "Horny dentist wants to tryst with his bosomy assistant after work, but his gay son and hypochondriacal patient keep interfering." The two clauses in that sentence are bloated, Macy's Parade-style, to lumber through the almost-hour of May's "In and Out of the Light," the evening's final one-act. Dr. Kesselman (Dennis Maher, seemingly miscast in his flubbed attempts at middle-aged Jewish crisis) leers and desperately wants to grope bosomy, kewpie doll-voiced Sue (Rachel Arthur). Meanwhile, his grown son (David Stroh) is determined to reveal both his sexual orientation and his career ambitions. (He wants to be a hygienist, not a dentist, which ranks as more controversial than the gay thing in Kesselman's mind.) A hostile patient (Wendy Welch) who catalogs with a tape recorder the triggers of her anxiety disorder and demands immediate treatment joins them. Arthur did pull laugh after laugh with her impersonation of the sexy but oblivious dame, and she almost saved the evening. But actors are reduced by the playwright to chasing each other around the dentist's chair and even a little vaudeville kick routine after 45 minutes; they're maddening payoffs to the shallowest exercise in this grueling theatrical triathlon.

Almost as insubstantial is May's "The Way of All Fish," but Welch imbues real Machiavellian menace to Ms. Asquith, a driven executive who deigns to have an impromptu sushi dinner with her meek receptionist Miss Riverton (Arthur, unrecognizable from her bimbo turn in the last act). The power play here? Miss Riverton has been studying the personality profiles of assassins and slowly begins to recount her ambition to "kill someone famous" as her life's achievement. Ms. Asquith eventually calls her bluff, issues career threats, and laughter does not ensue. Curtain.

Sandwiched between is Arkin's "Virtual Reality," an amusing vignette about a pair of none-too-bright hired hands (Maher and Stroh) awaiting a shipment of unidentified mob bounty inside a warehouse. They begin a series of "rehearsals"--how they're going to move and arrange the mysterious boxes--that recalls some of the wordless physical skits that May perfected with comic partner Mike Nichols in early-'60s stage and television. But those rarely exceeded 10 minutes, and "Virtual Reality" approaches 60, as Stroh grows insanely more enthusiastic about his role in the black market with amphetamine-crazy pantomimes. The always-reliable Stroh appears to be driving on fumes by the time Arkin's piece ends.

Three years ago, New York critics swooned over the self-indulgent, simplistic, and seriously dated Power Plays, although in his gossip column, The Village Voice's Michael Musto says he felt like he was sitting in "a dinner theater in Boca Raton" for all the ticket money he'd shelled out. WaterTower's version doesn't boast May and Arkin onstage in their original production, but three of the four actors here prove polished and skillful enough to betray May and Arkin's fatal confusion of the one-act with the sketch. It seems like some kind of mad scientist's monstrous stage experiment: Take a skit-sized setup and draw it out for the better part of an hour. Take my advice: If this shambling, crushing creature calls for you on an uneventful weekend night, lock the doors and turn on the VCR.

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