BWW Reviews: Rhubarb Celebrates Its 10th Season With Revival of BIRDS IN CHURCH
There are some lovely moments to be found in Birds in Church, the latest production from Nashville's Rhubarb Theatre-a refashioning of the company's first production almost ten years ago, both of which feature vignettes selected from among playwright and former priest Joe Pintauro's Metropolitan Operas. There are lovely moments, to be certain, along with some that are almost riotously funny, genuinely moving and clearly provocative.
Most of Pintauro's vignettes have a sexual undertone-or perhaps they skewer contemporary manners and mores or tweak the nose of the far-too-fashionable, urban twits who flaunt their supposed sophistication with the same glee usually reserved for high schoolers who have been laid for the very first time-and the playwright pulls no punches in regard to language or subject matter.
However, the overall effect of Birds in Church is that much of what transpires onstage is overwrought and, at nearly three hours in running time, overly long. No matter how compelling the performances are-and trust me, there is some excellent, if appallingly inconsistent, work going on at the Darkhorse Theater (which, coincidentally, used to be a church) through Saturday night, thanks to director Trish Crist-your mind starts to wander and you cannot help but wonder how many tedious scenes about defrocked priests yearning to suck some dick you're going to have to sit through (although, for variety, there is the one scene in which the priest-played by Clay Hillwig in one of his three appearances-is freaking out after having sex with a young woman some 27 or so times).
Despite the fact that Crist's ensemble features some of the finest actors in the Nashville area, there is some unevenness to the evening's program, both in the skill level and artistic range of the performers and the literature being presented.
"Ten Dollar Drinks" features the beautiful, somewhat understated, Lisa Dunaway as an Oscar-winning actress meeting an old, perhaps bitter, friend (played by the acerbic Kelly Lapczynski) for a cocktail-a reunion that is anything from congenial and ends with one of the women throwing a drink in the face of the other. The two women revel in the moment and deliver the goods with the same zeal once reserved for dames like Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins (look 'em up, damn it).
In "Soft Dude," Joy Tilley Perryman and Phil Brady are wonderfully off-color and somehow warmly engaging as an odd couple who find themselves at loggerheads when he can't get it up and she needs to work hard for the money. Brady is kind of woeful and sad but sweet as the former john who's fallen for his whore and Perryman is kind of wondrous as the world-weary object of his affections.
Caroline Davis and Bralyn Stokes are superb as a mismatched couple sharing a Christmas Eve dinner under the watchful of their waiter played by Jim Manning in "Seymour in the Very Heart of Winter" and Bob Fish and Lane Wright are well-cast as two priests in the eponymous "Birds in Church." Wright is paired with Kate Adams in "Bird of Ill Omen," the tale of another working girl encountering a mute and mysterious man from her past.
Stokes teams with the amazing Kellye Mitchell for the hilariously arch tale of "Rex," in which an upper crust couple deal with the wacky realities of their vegan/Buddhist lifestyle, and Mitchell joins Brady and Clay Hillwing for the disturbing "Dirty Talk," the penultimate vignette of Act Two.
Lapczynski gives an exquisite reading of Pintauro's "House Made of Air," playing the role of Mathilde Neruda who recounts the brutal slaying of her husband, poet Pablo Neruda, in the aftermath of the Chilean junta that overthrew the Allende government. Beautifully written, and stunningly brought to life by Lapczynski, the production's final scene, however, seems incongruous and thematically out of sync with everything that comes before it.
Other vignettes are less successful in presentation-perhaps due to Pintauro's heavy-handed writing, a lack of focus from the actors or Crist's staging and direction-including the opening vignette "Lightning," performed by Deanna Glasser and Paige Glasser. I have no idea what it was about because I understood about one in every five words uttered by the two actresses. "Uncle Chick," in which a nephew (played by Michael Welch) confronts his uncle (Anthony Just) about his homosexuality-the nephew's gay and hopes to console his uncle who's mourning his lover's death and the uncle thinks the younger man is coming on to him. Pintauro's scene just doesn't ring true, nor do the two actors.
Some judicious editing would do wonders for Birds in Church and considering the fact that the 14 scenes are selected from among Pintauro's collection of Metropolitan Operas, it's particularly galling that restraint seems non-existent.
Adams choreographs six dancers (besides Adams, the uncredited dancers are Nichole Forde, Faith Kelm, BranDon Johnson, Caleb Reynolds and Dominique Hawes) who are onstage between vignettes to move various set pieces, adding a certain flair and proving that Adams should start her own modern dance company. However, after we learn how many dancers it takes to move two chairs and a box (and it's no joke here-there's never enough lightness in these kinds of things), it becomes distracting.
Jim Manning provides the production's most intriguing component: a beautifully designed backdrop (beautifully lighted by designer Paul Cook) built of various-sized boxes and drawers which, if taken too literally, obviously represented the compartmentalization of the lives of all of Pintauro's characters, each of whom are hiding something of themselves from those around them.
- Birds in Church. Written by Joe Pintauro, from Metropolitan Operas. Directed by Trish Crist. Presented by Rhubarb Theater. At Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through November 17.