BWW Review: TONGUE OF A BIRD Doesn't Fly

BWW Review: TONGUE OF A BIRD Doesn't Fly

Tongue of a Bird

Written by Ellen McLaughlin, Directed by Emily Ranii; Scenic & Properties Designer, Courtney Nelson; Costume Designer, Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Designer, Dan Alaimo; Sound Designer, Edward Young; Projection Designer, Matthew Haber; Stage Manager, Tareena D. Wimbish

CAST: Olivia D'Ambrosio, Claudia Q. Nolan, Elizabeth Anne Rimar, Ilyse Robbins, Bobbie Steinbach

Performances through March 30, part of the inaugural Next Rep Black Box Festival, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or

Ellen Mclaughlin's Tongue of a Bird is the first show in New Repertory Theatre's inaugural Next Rep Black Box Festival. No one can dispute the intimacy of the venue, or the up-close-and-personal flavor of the production, directed by Emily Ranii and featuring an all-female cast. This band of sisters bares the souls of their characters and supports each other like birds in chevron flight, but the play lacks sufficient lift to let them soar beyond the blue horizon, or over the peaks of the Adirondack Mountains where the story takes place.

A young search and rescue pilot returns to her old stomping (flying) grounds to look for a missing 12-year old girl. While she's home, Maxine reconnects with Zofia, her Polish refugee grandmother who raised her after her mother committed suicide. Charlotte's mother Dessa hires Maxine because she has an astonishing record of success, always being more persistent than other searchers. It becomes evident in dreams of her mother Evie that Maxine is always searching for something that she will never find, and wise, insightful Zofia encourages her to learn to let go, as she has had to do so many times in her own life.

McLaughlin draws parallels between Dessa's frantic search for Charlotte and Maxine's desperate longing for Evie. She uses their relationship to underline the fact that Maxine was abandoned by her mother, while Dessa refuses to abandon Charlotte, despite the odds against finding her alive eleven days after she's gone missing. All of this dredges up Maxine's unresolved issues and she presses Zofia to give her answers that the old woman is unable - or unwilling - to give. By the end of the play, Maxine seems to have discovered what she needed to know on her own. (Click heels together three times.)

There might be more to it, but that's what I got from this lyric poem masquerading as a play. Written in a non-linear style, Tongue of a Bird is filled with monologues that are meant to deepen our understanding, but which didn't work for me. Although I see the connection with Maxine's love of flight, repeated references to birds as metaphor flew over my head. As the prospect of astral projection became appealing, what kept me in my seat were the achievements of Elizabeth Anne Rimar, totally natural as Maxine; Ilyse Robbins, known for her dancing and lighter musical roles, being high-strung, fidgety, and rough around the edges as Dessa; Bobbie Steinbach, conveying warmth, wisdom, and a little bit of mystery as Zofia; and Olivia D'Ambrosio, in her New Rep debut, capturing Evie's spirit, doubts, and insecurities. Claudia Q. Nolan (Charlotte) is like a sprite when she appears briefly in Maxine's mind's eye.

Ranii configures the black box with the audience seated on two (opposite) sides of the center performance area. Scenic designer Courtney Nelson hangs white netting over a screen where Matthew Haber projects passing clouds to simulate flight, while Edward Young provides background engine sounds. Dan Alaimo's lighting design alters as the action moves from reality to dream sequences, and Chelsea Kerl costumes everyone from the L.L. Bean catalogue, except for Evie who wears aviator garb. Most of these designers will be on board for the next two entries in the Black Box Festival, Our Lady (April 3-27) and In Between (April 4-20). Here's hoping they achieve lift-off.

Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Ilyse Robbins, Elizabeth Anne Rimar)

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Nancy Grossman From producing and starring in family holiday pageants as a child, to avid member of Broadway Across America and Show of the Month Club, Nancy has cultivated her love of the art and respect for the craft of theatre. She fulfilled a dream when she became an adult-onset tap dancer in the early 90's ("Gotta dance!"); she fulfills another by providing reviews for and evolving as a freelance writer. Nancy is an alumna of Syracuse University and a retired Probation Officer-in-Charge in the Massachusetts Trial Court system.

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