Birds in Church
Presented by Rhubarb
Through Jan. 17 at Darkhorse Theater
In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding several professional stage companies in Nashvillenamely, Tennessee Repertory Theatre, Mockingbird Theatre and People’s Branch, all undergoing significant transitions at the momentit behooves the discerning critical eye to revisit what goes on at the grassroots level. Is the true health of a local theatrical community assessed by the financial bottom line of a city’s large regional company or its higher-profile Actors’ Equity-affiliated enterprises? Or do we better gauge indigenous artistic impulses when little-paid and virtually no-name directors and actors come together and attempt to achieve serious, sophisticated art?
Where the newly formed Rhubarb Theatre Company’s production of Birds in Church is concerned, local theatergoers would do well to pick the second option. Yes, a few of the performers in this collection of 15 Joe Pintauro mini-plays acquit themselves at the level of what can be cynically referred to as “community theater.” But they are the exception to the rule in what is by and large a passionately rendered evening that expresses a wide range of emotions and serves up fascinating contemporary characters. Most of the credit has to go to Rhubarb co-founder Julie Alexander, who thoughtfully assembled the Pintauro pieces from the author’s considerable canon of short works, gave it a title (drawn from one of the anthology’s more uplifting scenes), and collaborated with the intelligent John Devine, who helped her direct the cast of 16.
Alexander made a solid splash locally about a year ago as the director of an interesting if flawed production of the lesbian-themed play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. Wisely, she’s drawn some of her actors from that cast (Stacy Shaffer-Bishop, Ree Mitchell, Virginia Evans and Trish Moalla), seasoning the ensemble with a dozen others whose actorly gifts are certainly varied but who come through when it matters most. The excellent direction helps mightily, of course. Alexander and Devine share the workload evenly, and the diverse scenes play out seamlessly across two acts.
This isn’t necessarily easy material, either. While Pintauro is clearly a sensitive and urbane writer, with an unerring ear for dialogue, he also fearlessly approaches challenging issuesthe kind that involve gay priests, aging lesbians, death, down-and-out prostitutes and all manner of difficult human and familial relationships. Alexander and Devine make sure that their players stay on the mark all evening long, and even when the acting is uneven, clarity abounds onstage.
Stories of a thoroughly adult nature set the tone here. There is “Rules of Love,” in which a priest hears the confession of the woman with whom he’s having an affair; “House Made of Air,” a dreamy, elegiac piece in which the wife of assassinated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda fancifully dances with her late husband; and “Rosen’s Son,” a tense, confrontational exercise involving a father and the gay former lover of his deceased son. Pintauro never shies away from strong language, but there isn’t one wisp of gratuitousness in his scripts. There’s also a fair amount of sardonic humor and flat-out whimsy sprinkled among the drama. The show’s final selection, “Fiat,” concerns a remarkably strange (and, one presumes, ultimately metaphorical) encounter between a gay hairdresser and a woman intent on rebirthing him sexually. The piece includes a goodly amount of female frontal nudity, which is handled with taste by director Devine and with aplomb and courage by actress Moalla.
In fact, Birds in Church is the kind of edgily realistic, short-attention-span storytelling that should appeal to a wide range of theatergoers. Last Friday’s nearly packed house at the Darkhorse actually approached evoking the one thing Nashville theater desperately needs: buzz. Furthermore, it matters little where such theatrical excitement originates from, so long as our city can touch it.
Singling out the best performers here is an easy and welcome task. Veteran Anne Tonelson is marvelous in her two roles, offering the quiet aging beauty of Matilde Neruda in “House Made of Air” and the crusty resignation of the lesbian Aunt Ency in “Lenten Pudding.” Also striking a blow for older actors everywhere is Hank Gibson, who is as lovable chasing birds in the title piece as he is angrily menacing in “Rosen’s Son.” Stacy Shaffer-Bishop makes for a ghostly apparition of a prostitute in “Bird of Ill Omen,” as she faces an old friend who is dying. Matthew Gerbig and Ree Mitchell, playing angst-ridden lovers in the confession box, infuse this scene and several others with poise, vigor and sincere emotion. Jason Edward Lewis is also very good in his three scenes; in particular, he induces a memorable chill when he explodes with pained frustration in “Rosen’s Son.” Vanessa Smith embodies pure professionalism in her single-scene turn in “Easter Night.” Others contributing ably in various roles are Clay Hillwig and Michael Roark, the latter etching out a clever and humorous characterization as a self-aware vegetarian in “Rex.”
Linking together these disparate pieces proves possibly the biggest challenge director Alexander facesespecially when stage manager Melissa Williams and her crew are constantly enacting scene changes. To cover the time, Alexander has singer Lance Respess wandering to and fro, tremulously delivering falsetto a cappella arias in between each segment of the show. It’s a quirky device, and while it serves its purpose, the singing struck me as ultimately somewhat annoying. It’s not that Respess doesn’t have talent, but after a while his warbly vocals seem well in tune maybe with birds, quite less so with humans. Monotony becomes his enemy; so does the risk of self-parody.
But even if we question Alexander’s judgment with this one choice, there is little else to challenge in her organization and staging of this modernly attuned, always engaging, sometimes riveting piece of theater. Nashvillians are seriously urged to attendto experience what committed fellow citizens are capable of achieving.
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