BWW Review: The Wingless Beauty of BIRDS OF PARADISE at Theater For The New City
There is a very beautiful quote from Birds of Paradise, a new play by Claude Solnik now in performances at the historic Theater for the New City. "Not everything needs wings to fly" - not the stars in the sky, or a kite - its tail drifting behind as it soars towards the heavens. In the everyday struggles that defined the lives of those living during the Great Depression, birds of paradise needed to take a more tangible form - not everything that was magical needed to ascend, but instead bring rising hope to those striving towards a better life. What a beautiful way of viewing the world - to see your husband, your child as incomparable blessings, but also a source of happiness, of hope you would do anything not to lose. As the audience is brought home each day with a husband, wife and daughter, we witness hardship in its various forms; what justice to the lives of those who fought this battle years ago bringing this to the stage brings.
Most of us can't even imagine what it means to be in dire need of basic necessities, all the while to have a family rely on our good judgment to make sure everyone is provided for; we don't know what it is to replace morality with the need to survive. We can't imagine a time and a place where saving food for a starving friend down the street is cause for reprimand - when people's integrity means nothing, and they must shirk around with their metaphorical tails in between their legs in fear of this reality being found out.
In the midst of an economic crisis, though, there is nothing insurmountable in the presence of familial love - it is the one amazing thing that remains constant. Yet, personal battles within and without show that the majesty of love has its limits - that, no matter how much we try to control out lives, the imperfect will always exist. We may not need wings to "fly," but perhaps those with wings get a little closer to heaven than the rest of us ever will.
Written by Solnik, directed by Nikki Reed and presented by Executive Artistic Director Crystal Fields, Birds of Paradise is being performed in the East Village for a very limited run. With opening night this past Thursday and running only through July 14th, this show is definitely one I recommend seeing. With a rather clever plot that is as touching as it is on the constant brink of drama, Birds of Paradise is now one of my favorite of Solnik's productions. Without revealing too much, this talented cast keeps the audience engaged by slowly yet surely moving along with the suspense that envelops their characters' lives. We are taken into the home of Jake and Emma who, with their daughter Elizabeth and good friend Dennis, gradually pick away at their stable existence until they (and not their financial situation) are responsible for bringing to an end all that they once loved.
Birds of Paradise is set in the 1930's and sets the undertone of what is to come from the very beginning. As Jake, alone and forlorn - a ghost of his former self who must now tell his saddening tale - walks around his vacant apartment, he seats himself at the piano and begins to play "Moonlight Sonata." An appropriate reference to the lucky stars he so often compared his wife to, the scene suddenly opens to one of a happier nature. Emma is in the kitchen, while Elizabeth is entertained by Dennis' coin tricks. It is the epitome of family life, marred by the desperation and worry which define their daily lives. Nevertheless, they stay together and remain hopeful that people will remain true to their word and pay them the money they need to keep their store afloat, but more importantly, the stability of their happy family. With increasing visits from the local bank, Emma asks Dennis to lend her family the cash they need; against her husband's wishes, she takes the brunt of their circumstances in her hands and creates greater conflict in the lives of those she loves (and loved...) than financial hardship ever had the power to.
Solnik's play really resonated with me because of how well everything came together to create a well-written, intriguing story that brings the nature of the Great Depression to a much more intimate level. Despite the show's rocky foundation (two actors left the cast days before opening), the story was seamlessly told; I truly didn't know who was part of the original cast and who had to learn their lines in record time. Everyone was well cast, giving such authenticity to the characters they play. Marisa Gold as Emma and Christopher James Raynor make the best couple, which in turns makes the audience comfortably move in a direction away from believing strife could ever fall between them. While Raynor pacifies his wife, assuring her that people will pay them back what is owed, Emma is much less confident in the integrity of her fellow man. She puts her can-do attitude into action, all the while inadvertently revealing parts of her past she never wanted her husband to know.
Nick Zelletz reminds me so much of a Gatsby-like character - so placid, so collected and cool as he watches the woman he once loved do better in life because of his generosity; it makes him ponder how things could have been different. I really enjoyed watching how his composure never left him - how he remained the introverted yet troubled family friend that they so needed; he has a great character that you really can't dislike. Abigail Grizzle as Elizabeth is wonderful - she's the perfect combination of sweet and sassy, so certain of what she wants and wise beyond her character's years. When she demanded the bike purchased as a birthday gift remains hers, I would definitely have been scared if that demand were directed at me! There's such power in her performance, and anyone can see that she is an able-minded and talented young actress. And, of course, the banker that keeps a constant state of dread ruminating through the house. Rex McKeeman, with his random entrances, strikes fear enough in the hearts of all those who just want this family to move on from their troubles.
Kudos to Costume Designer Everett Clark (who provides a never-ending supply of dresses for the cast), Set Designer Lytza Colon (who created a home that anyone would be happy to walk into), Lighting and Sound Designer Marsh Shugart (who mixes great period music with pieces that perfectly set the mood of the coming scene...and the light cues do the same and are amazing!) and Assistant to the Director Joanna Newman.
Presented by Crystal Field and The Textile Co., Birds of Paradise began performances at Theater for the New City (located at 155 First Avenue) on 7/11 and runs through 7/14. Tickets are $18/$15 seniors and students and can be purchased by clicking here or by calling 212-254-1109.