In 1986, renowned British playwright Caryl Churchill teamed up with anthropologist David Lan to write A Mouthful of Birds, a haunting ensemble play that explores the reasons why people become "possessed" by spirits, ideas, and impulses. In this series of interwoven nightmares, a mother kills her baby to neutralize her aggressive husband and a giant, predatory, birdlike creature. A modern transsexual reads about 19th-century French hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin, and that long-dead spirit helps him to free his own body from his alienation from it. An alcoholic is tormented by an unpainted window frame that pours alcohol down her throat. A midlevel executive of a meat export company falls in love with a pig that is headed for his own slaughterhouse.
Breeding Ground Productions's revival at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center's Flamboyan Theater, staged as part of the Spring Fever Festival, showcases some compelling performances by gifted actor-dancers. As the bird spirit, Skyler Sullivan is disturbingly birdlike. He has a bird's crooked, wings-heavy posture down perfectly, and his taut, heavy movements and rasping voice make it clear that this demon is more vulture than nightingale.
Standing out in another nonhuman part is Mark Lindberg as the Pig, whose eyes stare with eerie pathos from behind a simple pink mask that obscures his face's more human features. Lindberg also plays Barbin and Pentheus, the latter a major character in The Bacchae. Euripides's ancient Greek tragedy about destruction by mad women is a major influence on Churchill and Lan's writing. As the infanticidal mother, Debbi Jean seems both mundane and completely mad.
Director-designer-sound-painter Tomi Tsunoda has introduced two innovations into this production, and, sadly, neither appears necessary or helpful. The first is sound painting, a musical technique in which performers without instruments conduct performers with instruments through a program of improvisation by using a complicated sign-language vocabulary of more than 700 gestures developed by New York-based composer Walter Thompson.
In theory, this is a perfect way to illustrate and enhance Churchill and Lan's story, as the audience watches the sound painters (Tsunoda, Jessica Levine, Laura Shiffrin, Joanna Lampert, and Andrew Scoville) control the musicians while the demons control the possessed characters. In practice, it creates some beautiful, often chilling, trance-like music, but as the sound painters stood, knelt, or jumped around at the edges of the thrust stage, they frequently obstructed my view of the actors.
Furthermore, the musicians whom the sound painters ostensibly control are not visible, with the exception of one woman sitting upstage at a laptop with a glowing white Macintosh Apple appliqué on the downstage-facing reverse side of its screen. (The music sounded electronic, and no musicians are credited in the program.) As the play's dialogue is not improvised and is not intended to vary during the show's run, it is not clear why the music needed to be impromptu.
The second directorial interpolation is actually a deletion—of the intermission. Intermissionless plays are fine if, like Churchill's brilliant Far Away, they are 60 minutes long. A 90-minute long intermissionless play, if it is a good one, is also watchable, and there have been many engaging examples, from Salome back in 1892 to this year's tense, rapid-fire Nixon's Nixon.
However, the performance that I saw began at 8:30 and ended well after 10:30, without a break. I have been assured that the play is supposed to run only two hours, but even that may leave spectators feeling exhausted. That the performers are able to manage it is impressive, or maybe they are possessed by some particularly energetic spirits.
If you have the stamina to sit through this show, it is an interesting experiment, if not an entirely successful one, with much in it that is fascinating.