Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Love Bird - Theatre Review

What: Love Bird
When: 3 - 7 October 2018
Where: La Mama Trades Hall
Written by: Georgina Harris
Directed by: Phoebe Taylor
Performed by: Jessica Martin, Brendan McFarlane, Ryan Stewart, Phoebe Taylor, and Matt Tester
Design by: Jason Chalmers
Lighting by: Jason Crick
Sound by: Steven Carnell
Stage management by: George Lazaris
Phoebe Taylor, Jessica Martin, and Matt Tester
Love Bird is the play currently being performed at La Mama Trades Hall until Sunday. This is not a love story. Well, actually, it is but Love Bird is not romantic in any way at all.

All of the publicity - and also the reviews from the first iteration at The Butterfly Club in January - refer to Love Bird as absurdist comedy. There is also some reference to it being related to the sitcom genre and you can see by the design (above) there is definitely some kind of cartoonish aesthetic Chalmers was working with.

I have to burst this bubble though. Love Bird is neither absurdist nor a comedy. Let's start with the second element first. For a show to be a comedy it has to have a feel good/happy ending. Just because a show has humour does not make it comedy - just ask Aristotle!

Now for the more complicated element - absurdism. Absurdism is a term as thoroughly misused in modern theatre as comedy. Absurdism - real absurdism - requires a level of existential angst about it. Think Waiting For Godot for example. Nothing of the sort exists in Love Bird. A more accurate way to describe Love Bird is a disturbing family drama with an air of the ridiculous.

Love Bird is the story of an 8 year old girl who is given a cockatiel - also known as a love bird - for her birthday. Cockatiels mate for life, think they are human if they have no mirror and no mate, and live for 20 years. Harris has based this part of the story on her own life.

I really hope where the story in the play goes is not quite so autobiographical because it is disturbing in so many ways I actually felt nauseous at points and really upset. I was even more upset by the uproarous laughter of the people sitting in the back row. Did they not understand what they were seeing?

In a nutshell, the bird finds a way to achieve sexual satisfaction with the girl. When the mother finds out she is banned from taking the bird out of the cage. The father takes a phone call and the bird is noisy so the father asks the girl to 'pleasure' the bird to shut it up and then sends her to the kitchen to eat Tim Tams. How many levels of destructive programming does the poor girl need?

Fast forward several years and the girl is dating. She brings a boy home and the possessive bird gets upset. The girl 'pleasures' the bird to shut it up and then, is encouraged by the boy to 'pleasure' him.

Yes, things happen to short circuit the situation. Specifically, her hands have Dettol on them after cleaning up from her activities with the bird which then causes a painful burning sensation for the boy-  but the pattern has already been set and we all know this won't be the end of it for her.

Amidst all this there is some commentary about unconditional love and the parents have a deeply disfunctional relationship which (from what I could tell from the direction), resulted in the mother becoming an alcoholic... Can you see why I am having trouble seeing this as comedy? I lost sight of the humour after the first ten minutes and I never got it back.

Taylor writes in the program notes this re-mount was about exploring the darker side of the text and I think she succeeded but in this instance this is not a re-mount, it is a re-imagining and everything should have started from scratch. The cartoonish flavour of the costumes is completely out of place with the darkness she has found and frames the work inappropriately. I admit I am not sure how involved Chalmers was with this remount because the role of the Mother was played by a petite actor at The Butterfly Club and Taylor's dress is not a design match in style or fit to any of the other characters.

Harris has written a play with two problematic elements for stage - a child character played by an adult, and an animal played by a human. These aspects are always deep wells of misery for theatre-makers to fall into.

Martin always brings great life and energy to the stage but (as happens most of the time), she has aged down too far. Franny is supposed to be 8 but she is being played as if she is closer to 5 or 6. This problem is a combination of the costume, the direction, and the acting. In Love Bird though, the confustion doesn't seem to get better when reappears as the teenager. It is almost impossible to place her age in the second half of the play.

I can't even deal with the cockatiel (Stewart). I don't think it is so much a problem with the actor as it is a conceptual flaw in the direction. In this darker version, it would have been a more powerful choice to not have the the cockatiel real in the space at all. In that version I could also be persuaded the play is absurdist in the real sense of the word.

Tester plays the father magnificently but he is playing the original, more cartoonish version of the show. Taylor is good as the mother but fails to portray the obsessive cleaning aspect of the character which didn't give her anything to really lean into as an actor.

I admit I really did not enjoy my night of theatre with Love Bird but the rest of the audience was in fits of laughter so maybe I missed something important. I just couldn't divorce the performance from the messaging and the messaging was way too dark for me to laugh.

Love Bird is currently running at an hour and a half - extended from it's one hour length at The Butterfly Club. This is a mistake. Some serious choices need to made by both Harris and Taylor with regard to what this show is and then make sure all their choices support those intentions. As it is, Love Bird is a mish mash of styles and ideas and is currently sitting as a very dangerous work of unfiltered messaging.

2 stars

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