Despite its charming and appealing design and puppetry work, Concrete Temple Theatre’s Bird Machine never quite takes flight. The featured puppets evoke the expected sense of wonder and delight, but the script and basic production flaws prevent it from really soaring. This interesting “puppetical” features a script that plays out like the book of a musical with periodic interludes of puppetry inserted like songs. The story centers around an Imperial groundskeeper, Vince (Michael Tomlinson), in a fantasy medieval world who tells a story to a group of orphaned children about his own culpability in their parents’ murders.
Vince’s story takes us fifteen years into the past, to a birthday gift challenge issued by the Emperor (Jo Jo Hristova). Vince and his friend Leo (Carlo Adinolfi) are competing to present the Emperor with the most delightful and appropriate gift in order to earn the coveted position of Imperial Architect.
Leo, in a nod to Leonardo Di Vinci’s legacy, constructs a flying machine by observing the flight of birds. Vince builds the Emperor a small jewel garden that projects a garden, woodland animals and falling snow. Eventually the contest spirals into tragedy and Vince launches a bitter campaign to seek revenge on the Emperor for his indifference and smug sense of privilege.
Tomlinson, Adinolfi and Hristova bring some inventive humor to the thin fable. Tomlinson, in particular, reaches for a genuine emotional center for his villainous, yet deeply sympathetic character. His opening monologue starts the evening off well, and his presence and beautiful voice are continually striking as the performance progresses.
Hristova is also a standout with her delightfully self-obsessed Emperor. She brings big, over-the-top energy and a sense of fun that is exactly right. Adinolfi has several scenes working with puppet partners in which his physicality is very engrossing.
Six puppeteers (Brian Carson, Ayako Dean, Leat Klingman, Megan O’Brien, Zdenko Slobodnik and Stacey Weingarten) in black masks create a magical world of transformation and grace. They turn a miniature town into functional furniture before your eyes, manipulate gorgeous skeletal birds to create migrating flocks, and believably depict large crowds of fearful peasants with tiny paper doll style puppets.
Despite all the bewitching interludes of splendid craftsmanship, the show never manages to be as engaging as it should be. There is no real emotional involvement with any of the characters and confused and disjointed dialogue mars the generally solid performances.
The real disappointment is the lack of smart pacing that manages to make a one hour show feel endless. Director Renee Philippi slows the action down continually with long transitions and unnecessarily drawn-out dead spaces. The enchantment of the puppets wears off when weighted down by the deadly tempo.
Theater-goers with a special interest in puppetry, who like their puppets to have more romance and intelligence than Kermit, the Fraggles, and Bert and Ernie, will find a lot to like in Bird Machine. But it is a rough flight for anyone looking for sharp and satisfying theatre.