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Theater Review:

"THE GREEN BIRD" at Strawdog Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

In his overblown dramatic allegory, "The Green Bird," Carlo Gozzi jostles fairy-tale and commedia dell’arte archetypes of his time – the 17th century – to let fall more idyllic notions of family and charitable deeds. It’s awash in absurd yet recognizable fantasies – from a gorgeous female statue coming to life to the search for a "divine apple and waters that dance." There’s also a wicked queen mother (with a hideous cough and rash); an imprisoned young queen who is tended to by the titular aviary creature; and an opportunistic courtly adviser-narrator who pretends to have psychic powers.

But despite its multidisciplinary commentary on parental responsibility, the evils of sudden wealth and the fine line between compassion and self-love, "The Green Bird" is as scattered as its zanily-fused structure. Stephen Epp’s hip and anachronistic 1993 adaptation (with worn references to Hannibal Lecter’s fava beans and Chianti) only magnifies the work’s pseudo-profound and redundant mayhem. The Strawdog Theatre ensemble dive full force into their screamingly metaphoric roles. And director Nic Dimond fills the small stage with a deviously inventive energy.

Yet the production seems to be a lot more magical and full-bodied than Gozzi’s half-realized script. Re-framing children’s theater images as diabolical and self-satiric monstrosities, the Strawdog artists maintain the manic mood necessary for conveying the twisted innocence of dark fables. Too bad their tireless drive amounts to a rather flat and sour pay-off.

"The Green Bird" revolves around a pair of royal twins – Renzo and Barbarina – sent off by the king’s evil mother, Tartagliona, to be killed as infants. While the blustery King Tartaglia is off at war, his mother leads him to believe that his angelic wife, Ninetta, gave birth to puppies. The poet-narrator did not murder them as instructed; so they landed in the open arms of a lowly sausage stuffer, Truffaldino, and his doting wife, Smeraldina. But, when the twins turn 18, Truffaldino sends them out into the cruel world.

On their journey back to their royal past, the smug and studious waifs encounter the gargantuan head of a statue (Calmon), who guides them down the path of riches. Later, roles reverse and their adoptive parents become their servants. Meanwhile, Ninetta is imprisoned inside the castle walls and kept alive by a green bird, which is really a transmogrified human admirer.

Regardless of this oddly overdone but unsatisfactory play, the Strawdog ensemble enjoys several magical moments – from the confrontational ninja-musicians stabbing out heart-rattling original compositions by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman to Kimberly Senior’s soulful puppet design (especially the personality-rich effigies of the characters who introduce each scene). David Meihaus’ candy-colored, Lego-like set -- ghoulishly lit by Lynne Koscielniak and Katie Bond – perfectly balances the work’s alternating sweet and fiendish aura.

Strawdog’s consistently excellent group of actors – notably Kyle Hamman, Jennifer Avery, Anita Deely and Michael Dailey, as well as non-ensemble members Cherise Silvestri and Shannon Hoag – vigorously stamp out the deceptively simplistic elements of their stock characters to make them more than hollow allegorical shells. Still, "The Green Bird" – while a rare specimen of comedic/morality play ingenuity – loses its grandly purposeful momentum in mid-flight.

"The Green Bird" runs through May 26 at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: $15. Call 773-528-9696 or log onto www.strawdog.org.

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