"It's just messy right now," a character in playwright Steve Yockey’s The Thrush and the Woodpecker states defensively early in the play. If only it were just messy right now.
Steve Yockey is a Los Angeles-based writer whose play Blackberry Winter is currently receiving a National New Play Network (NNPN) “rolling world premiere,” which means its premiere is taking place concurrently at a number of NNPN member theaters across the country, including right here in Dallas at Kitchen Dog Theater.
Kitchen Dog Theater is one of three theaters in the country also producing another of Yockey’s plays, The Thrush and the Woodpecker, in repertory as part of their annual New Works Festival; as KDT Artistic Director Tina Parker put it, “it’s the year of Yockey.”
Lucky for us.
Yockey has a knack for elevating the ubiquitous family conflict play into the realm of fantastical absurdity, without neglecting the searing insights into what it means to be human we’ve come to take for granted from accomplished 21st-century playwrights.
Brenda Hendricks, played by a wonderfully vivacious Kristin McCollum, has rather a lot going on when the lights come up on her pleasant living room in The Thrush and the Woodpecker. Her son Noah (Carson Wright) has made an unexpected and unwelcome return home after having been expelled from university for some overly aggressive social activism. It becomes apparent almost immediately that the deliciously aggressive banter the two are adept at carrying on is a crutch less for Noah than it is for Brenda; her husband is suspiciously absent and to top it all off, another surprise visitor from Brenda’s past, this one even more unwelcome than Noah, is about to appear at the door.
Diane Worman’s mysterious Róisín Danner serves as Brenda and Noah’s revealer (and much more), intent on dredging up Brenda’s unacknowledged past. By the end of the play the why becomes clear, although Danner’s method for arriving at the truth is one hell of a theatrical experience.
The Thrush and the Woodpecker is a scorched-earth play. It’s a relentless exploration of our pasts; how they never truly leave us no matter how many “stories” we manufacture both for ourselves and for others.
Under the direction of Johnathan Taylor, The Thrush and the Woodpecker is a stylistic wonder that serves as a welcome reminder in our minimalist age that it isn't only the dialogue and performers that create the magic of theater, it’s the lights, the sounds and the occasional surprises, like, for example, animated video. The dim lights and primitive soundtrack which accompany David Goodwin’s endearingly creepy animations in The Thrush and the Woodpecker (if that doesn’t make sense, think Tim Burton) and Worman’s exquisitely told story, are reminders that all storytelling is not created equal and in theater anything goes provided you have an artistic team that can make it work.
Which is the wonder of this play and this production. Of course I mention the artistic team not in any way to slight the performances themselves. McCollum, Wright and Worman deliver Yockey’s bitterly beautiful dialogue without a misstep and they’re all great fun to watch, perhaps in particular the young Carson Wright, who seems destined for many more poignant performances. But the true stars of this production are the people we can’t see. Kitchen Dog Theater’s The Thrush and the Woodpecker is a dreamy illustration of theater’s potential.
Again, The Thrush and the Woodpecker is running in repertory with Blackberry Winter at Kitchen Dog Theater’s temporary residency at Undermain Theatre (3200 Main St.) through June 26. In addition to the rolling world premieres of the Yockey plays, Kitchen Dog’s New Works Festival includes a number of pay-what-you-can staged readings. A couple have already passed, but catch a reading of Steve Yockey’s Mercury and Joanna Garner’s Knotted next Saturday and a reading of Matt Lyle’s Cedar Springs and J.C. Pankratz’s Redeemer on June 18.
For tickets to the New Works Festival and more information, visit kitchendogtheater.org.