« Frankie and Johnny and Black Snake Moan | Main | Under the Horns of Brünnhilde »

Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird

When the Dresser goes to the theater, she likes to experience something wildly new and tasty. Like a child in the old penny candy stores (she remembers the strips of paper with dots of sugar candies stuck to them or, G-d forbid, the candy cigarettes—some in a white minted form with a red tip and others in milk chocolate), the Dresser wants to partake of all the sweet confections being handed out at the theater. Something like this seemed to be promised at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center of Maryland in Director Leslie Felbain’s production of Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird with a new translation by Federica Brunori Deigan.


When the Dresser arrived at the Kay Theater March 6 with her translator friend Myong-Hee Kim who also loves experimental theater, the actors from The Green Bird were socializing with the audience. One actor was handing out faux rounds of cheese while he chomped down on a fragrant loaf of salami. Just as well, the Dresser eschews processed meats and most dairy. The costumes however, particularly that of the evil queen mother Tartagliona with her dangerously pointed breasts, served as the eye-candy the Dresser craves.

Foreground, Rachel Menyuk as twin Barbarina and background (L to R): John Barkmeyer as Brighella, Dior Brown as Queen Mother Tartagliona, Sam McMenamin as King Tartaglia
Photo Credit: Stan Barouh

The costume designer Ana Marie A. Salamat clearly had fun making sexual statements with many of the characters—King Tartaglia, the son of Tartagliona, had an overly prominent set of genitals protruding from his tights and the sausage-maker’s wife Smeraldina had a set of crocheted breasts that hung like soft sausages on the bodice of her dress.

The sexual costuming reminded the Dresser of what went on in Mark Adamo’s opera Lysistrata or The Nude Goddess, but, of course, that was all based on the 411 BC farce by Aristophanes. Therefore sexual dressing isn’t new but it always excites. The Dresser, taking the outside seat, tucked her friend Myong-Hee inside the aisle to avoid any hi-jinks that the cast might visit on her shy seatmate. The Dresser was thinking that The Green Bird might be like 500 Clown Macbeth where physical contact with the audience was part of the show. As the lights went down, that voice who tells you to quell all your noisemakers—cells, pagers, watches—taunted that if you had to take a leak, you were now in trouble because there would be no intermission as promised in the printed program.


The Green Bird like Robert Wilson’s intermission-less I La Galigo has protagonist twins, pageantry, and trial by quest, but despite The Bird’s moralizing, this theater piece has nothing substantive to offer a modern adult audience and because of the blatant sexual antics, it’s also not appropriate for small children. Briefly, the story is about an evil queen mother who throws her daughter-in-law down a castle drain, orders her twin grandchildren killed but the girl and boy twins are spared by the queen's emmisaries and come to be raised by a sausage-maker and his wife. The racy part of the story is that the king returns from his wars, laments the loss of his wife and then falls in love with his teenage daughter.

Gozzi, who also wrote the stories of Turandot and The Love of Three Oranges both turned into popular operas by Giacomo Puccini and Sergei Prokofiev respectively, was a fabulist. He invented fables that were populated with stock characters from the Commedia dell'arte. Commedia dell'arte, an improvisational form of theater, derives from Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, which are themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the fourth century BC. The Dresser believes that comedy can achieve a higher level of art than tragedy and drama because superb comedy combines both the tragic and the comic.

What was particularly good about this show were the costumes and the revolving set. The acting by university students was acceptable, however, the show needed actors who are particularly gifted in improv and a director focused on helping the actors connect with the audience. And there were modern day references to such incidences as the gun mishap by Vice President Dick Cheney, but nothing that woke up the audience and doubled us over with gut-wrenching laughter. The Dresser says if the director cannot wow the audience like Julie Taymor does with masks, puppets and other design elements (and Taymor did The Green Bird in this way on Broadway from April 18 – June 4, 2000), then the players, despite the lack of poetry and philosophy in the script, must set fire to themselves in order to energize the people watching. The Dresser wonders if the director thought that the players would build this energy if she cut out the intermission?


Although the Dresser has been told that the critic’s job must never be to fix what is broken in a play, she will stretch her neck toward the chopping block and say that the statue characters in the play—these are the moralizers—represented a lost opportunity to play up what the Dresser calls San Francisco street mime. (The Dresser usually sees these stone-y mimes in Union Square.) A more physical Calmon and Pompea could have been a satisfying antidote both to their stultifying sermons and to the silly two-dimensional characters like the twins.

Front, Mark David Halpern as twin Renzo and back, Jessica Henry as Pompea
Photo Credit: Stan Barouh

The Dresser closes now with one of her own poems about a real life farce complete with a dash of Commedia dell'arte from the British Sitwell family. The castle mentioned is Montegufoni where many of the priceless masterpieces from the Uffizi Art Gallery were stored during World War II and where in the Middle Ages Boccaccio and Petrarch fled during the days of the Black Plague.


Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell endorsed
Picasso for the Montegufoni frescoes,
But their lordly sire George bellowed,
A Tuscan artist born in Cortona would do—
Gino Severini, painting under the influence
of who else? Pablo Picasso. Edith threw up
her hands, but her brothers directed
the painter to the great clowns of the Commedia
dell’arte and shortly thereafter three masked
harlequins strolled across the painted garden
of the castle fortress with the faces of the rebellious
sons and the artist himself. Oh, where was
Sir George while the hired muralist painted clownish
instruments—guitar, violin, mandolin—all without strings
and what indeed was the Sitwell master thinking when he blasted
Signor Severini with trumpet fanfare loud enough to shake Montegufoni
walls—that his poet sons would finally listen to their father?

By Karren L. Alenier


Post a comment

Use this form to place a comment to a post in the blog. You must include a valid email address for spam protection. Please see our Privacy Policy for details on how your private information is used and protected. Your comment will be posted as soon as it is reviewed by the blog editor.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 9, 2007 9:29 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Frankie and Johnny and Black Snake Moan.

The next post in this blog is Under the Horns of Brünnhilde .

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.