Entertainment » Theatre

Tongue of a Bird

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Mar 13, 2014
Bobbie Steinbach as Zofia and Elizabeth Anne Rimar as Maxine, in New Rep’s production of ’Tongue of a Bird,’ continuing through March 30
Bobbie Steinbach as Zofia and Elizabeth Anne Rimar as Maxine, in New Rep’s production of ’Tongue of a Bird,’ continuing through March 30  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

Insofar as playwright Ellen McLaughlin is an actor, her 1996 work "Tongue of a Bird" (chosen by the New Repertory Theater to kick off its Inaugural Next Rep Festival) might be considered an actors' play. Or, given its interwoven strains of feminine relationships -- mother / daughter, female victim / female rescuer, women commiserating over loss, and the long shadow of the crone / mother / girl trope -- one could make an argument for this play's feminist credentials. In any case, given the roster of Boston's stage talent brought to this single production, there's no shortage of star wattage.

Mostly, however, this is a story about an individual and her airplane. It might seem like a more traditionally male-centric theme, but the idea of free flight above and away from worldly cares and constraints, and of ranging over virgin terrain, suffuses this play. The pilot is Maxine (Elizabeth Anne Rimar), a young woman powerfully drawn to the sky as a means of surveying the world around her as well as escaping the confines of her life.

When she's not in her Cessna looking for lost hikers and other souls gone astray, Maxine is arguing with her grandmother, the Polish émigré Zofia (Bobbie Steinbach), who leads a fiercely independent life in the Adirondack Mountains. In her sleeping hours, Maxine is haunted by dreams of her dead mother, Evie (Olivia D'Ambrosio), whom she envisions as an aviatrix in the Amelia Earhart mode.

When Maxine agrees to take on the task of looking for a missing 12-year-old girl named Charlotte (Claudia Q. Nolan), the girl becomes another nocturnal visitant. The fear and panic evinced by Charlotte's desperate mother, Dessa (Ilyse Robbins), strikes a chord for Maxine, who has been on a search of her own for years: To decipher the mysterious reasons for, and circumstances surrounding, her mother's death by her own hand. Even as Dessa puts every cent and every item of property on the line in an increasingly hopeless bid to find her daughter -- a mission to which Maxine, with her Cessna, lends agency -- Maxine is shattered by what she perceives as her mother's abandonment of her via suicide. In service to others, she is tireless, peerless; but her long line of sight involves a blind spot when it comes to her own inner struggles, and that's where her dreams come in: Fraught, vivid, and tingling with anxiety.

McLaughlin's play throws its gaze across a lot of terrain, without necessarily exploring much of it in detail. Individual scenes carry power: Zofia recounting her first moments in America, or counseling Maxine on the value in letting go of things and forgetting them; a laughing jag that develops between Maxine and Dessa as the two cruise high over blank stretches of snow. But the pieces don't always fit together or add up, leaving "Tongue of a Bird" a somewhat leaky vessel.

Director Emily Ranii's production is stripped down and bare bones, which works rather well here. The Black Box theater space at the New Rep was previously the venue for a recent production of "Imagining Madoff," and it looks as though the detailed, if compact, scenic design for that play were simply ripped up and the remaining skeleton repurposed. The triangular space includes a large, rough patch, which is used as a screen for Matthew Haber's projections (memories, dreams, mountains as seen from the air); the apex is a kind of hot seat, where Zofia holds forth and Maxine confronts her dream specters.

Edward Young's sound design incorporates a low drone reminiscent of a plane engine, as well as some unsettling music and, in synchronization with Dan Alaimo's lighting design, nerve-wracking moments in which Maxine, in her dreams, hears the house being battered by starlings.

Yes, birds play a role here, too; all things airborne do, including witches. (Zofia reminisces about her great-grandmother having been a witch, and even seeing a squadron of women in flight in her girlhood.) There's a smoldering going on here; you could almost retitle this "Women on the Verge of Taking Wing." There's also a sense of something other lurking at the edges -- something possessing a certain stripe of terror and wildness; something just out of sight, over the edge of the horizon or just on the other side of sleep, a monster of the subconscious or perhaps a primitive, forgotten deity. The play brushes these concepts without pulling them to our gaze -- or elevating us to their level. In this respect, "Tongue"'s reach exceeds its grasp.

"Tongue of a Bird" plays through March 30 at the Black Box Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit www.newrep.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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