Commonwealth Shakespeare (in residence at
has assembled an impressive team to animate William Wharton’s allegorical novel,
BIRDY (playing through March 17th). BIRDY has been adapted by
playwright Naomi Wallace, whose brilliant ONE FLEA SPARE is fondly remembered
by this reviewer. BIRDY is both the play’s title and the nickname of its
central character. The touching, and at times humorously ironic, narrative
soars alternately from past to present, illustrating the value of friendship
and the devastating damage of war. Babson College
As a child, Birdy (Spencer Hamp) is fascinated by all things avian. Even before the play begins we hear the flapping of wings, hinting at what is to come. As a teenager, Birdy befriends a neighborhood boy, Al (Maxim Chumov) who is more than happy to join Birdy in his pursuit of flight, although Al is more interested in adventure than birds. With the boundless enthusiasm of young boys, they scavenge the town for aluminum scraps and bicycle parts to fashion mechanical wings.
WWII intervenes and we find the young men reunited in an army hospital, both with severe injuries. Adult Birdy (Will Taylor) no longer speaks. He sits on the floor like a wounded bird, perching on tiptoes, his arms wrapped tightly around him for protection. His best friend (Keith White), who is recovering from head wounds, has been summoned by the hospital psychiatrist (Steven Barkhimer) in a last ditch effort to reach the catatonic Birdy. Sometimes the younger and older characters appear together: when soldier Al is interviewed by the obtuse army doctor, his younger self suggests a nifty, wiseacre way to annoy the blowhard. He does it and we’re delighted.
The intricate bird references (about undulating flight vectors and complex bird song) have the echoing ring of authenticity and Hamp (as young Birdy) lovingly conveys his intense (perhaps too intense) devotion to winged creatures. Both Hamp and Chumov perfectly capture the reckless joy of perilous youthful exploits, clambering over Clint Ramos’ sky high scaffolding crowded with rusty cages and wing shaped driftwood. Director Steven Maler elicits our imagination to “see” the boys falling, sliding, and swimming.
You may know Alan Parker’s lovely 1984 film with Matthew Modine as Birdy. The film has an easier time of it, depicting flight. Maler and company have a tough battle on stage because we struggle with the limitations of our imagination. Additionally, the realistic flow of the play is interrupted by the necessity of our collective resourcefulness.
Various characters weigh in philosophically on the import of war. The hawkish doctor doesn’t much like soldiers, especially wounded soldiers, equating their fear with cowardice. The kindly nurse (Damon Singletary) whose job it is to tend to the severely wounded, has the opposite opinion. He’s the compassionate conscientious objector, who knows firsthand the costs of war. It’s Singletary, in fact, who humanizes the “anti-war message.” He’s the one character who understands humane treatment. (Certainly the doctor doesn’t.) That and the tender relationship of the young characters are the reason to see this BIRDY.