I have gone to school around the corner from the former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory for almost a year now, completely unaware of its proximity. After seeing Birds on Fire I walked over from Theater for the New City to what is now the Brown Science building on New York University’s campus, observing it with new eyes. Almost 100 years ago, on March 25, 1911 to be exact, a terrible fire claimed the lives of 146 people. The locked doors, lack of fire escapes, and crowded conditions ended up being the rallying cries for labor reform, causing the fire to be regarded as both a terrible tragedy and an important turning point in New York.
All of this history provides the haunted backdrop for writer and director Barbara Kahn’s Birds on Fire , which creatively imagines the lost stories of four unidentified victims of the fire. The idea is incredibly innovative, and despite some flaws in the structure, the actors’ performances and Allison Tartalia’s songs convincingly draw you into this historical fiction.
I walked into the space with several very clear images of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, having seen a great many pictures of the tragedy in school. In terms of period, Alice J. Garland’s costumes are just the right balance of individuality and historical style. Each character is dressed uniquely, yet there is a high degree of unity when they all appear together.
Mark Marcante’s set is also well suited to the play’s various locations, yet its spatial versatility is not utilized to its fullest potential. The most aesthetically beautiful tableaus are the well choreographed factory scenes, which Robert Gonzalez, Jr. successfully conceived with nothing but six chairs and the precise movements of the actors. Too often the set is cluttered by poorly rendered props, which scenes like this prove are completely unnecessary.
My general critique of the production is its tendency to send itself in several directions simultaneously, when its greatest strengths are in the moments of extreme focus. We are initially introduced to the Guide, who alternates between showing us the story of the four future fire victims and a heavily stylized (and rather propagandistic) account of the oversights that led to the fire itself. The characters of the Factory Owner, Superintendent of Buildings, Architect, and Alderman are all played by large puppets, which provides a stark contrast to the easily relatable factory workers. I understand this choice, yet I was alienated by the didactic tone of these segments.
This one-sided commentary and lack of character development unfortunately describes Robert Gonzalex, Jr.’s Guide as well. Throughout the play he cannot quite master the ease of storytelling so vital to a character created as an audience go-between. The Guide seems extraneous and clichéd in comparison to the other (human) characters populating the play.
The characters of Nell, Maddie, Rose, and Renzo are far more compelling in their human complexity. We are interested in their relationships, their lives, and their potential futures. The history of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is still being taught, and if one had not learned about it, there are numerous ways to access its historical information. What excited me about the concept of this play was not its educational value, but rather the creative possibilities of rewriting four lives lost to history. I want to hear more about recent immigrants Renzo (Tommy Kearney), and Rose (Amanda Yachechak), whose emotional monologues about their pasts contain a great deal of historical information mingled with human interest.
Kearney and Yachechak have beautiful singing voices, great chemistry, and much emotional honesty. The strength of these performances meets its match in Birds on Fire ’s other couple: Nell (Anna Podolak) and Maddie (Gusta Johnson). Their natural chemistry, and the solid scene work behind and around it, nicely encapsulates the nuanced relationship of a couple who has been together for a number of years.
Throughout the play, the human connections prove to be the most striking, like the smiles exchanged between a factory seamstress (Sarah Shankman) and a presser (Brian F. Waite), who are unaware of their imminent fate. They remind us of the missed opportunities, the potential happiness, and the unpredictability of life. It is these moments that make the strongest political case against those who were responsible for the fire.
Birds on Fire ends up being heavy handed in certain moments, but the finesse of the romantic plots is enough to make this show worth seeing. Like Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers can never be together. But we can take solace in the knowledge that these four unknown victims have been reincarnated and given a chance to experience some love and happiness on the stage of Theater for the New City.