Caryl Churchill and David Lan's 1986 play A Mouthful of Birds has never been an easy work to stage, but its subject matter is so enticing that an avant-garde presentation of the piece — a series of short plays with a thread of Greek myth running through them — seems almost inevitable. Director Tomi Tsunoda has attempted it by using a technique called soundpainting, in which a central figure directs the movements and activities of the actors with a series of complicated gestures. It looks like something between American Sign Language and a kind of stringless puppetry, and it has the potential to be beautiful and strangely affecting and to shed new light on a text.
In the Breedingground production of A Mouthful of Birds, however, the soundpainting tends to confuse the situation, although there are wonderful moments in which the soundpainters and their subjects seem to be bound together by the process on an intimate level. Mark Lindberg, for example, frequently stares at his puppeteer with a frightening intensity as he or she circles him while deciding when to tell him to sit, fall, or run off to the wings.
The production's problems are threefold: First, there are simply too many soundpainters for there to be any sort of visual coherency to the piece, with no apparent rhyme or reason to their entrances and exits. Second, the work — which here feels more like an interesting rehearsal than a finished performance — goes on for nearly two and a half intermission-free hours; an hour and a half would be plenty. Third, and most important, the script is so complex that adding further complexity with unscripted cross-casting (some of the cross-casting is in the text) and jarring interruptions seems needless and a little pretentious. A play like A Mouthful of Birds needs clarifying, not further complications, however interesting they might be.
The actors, particularly Skyler Sullivan as the pig-loving Paul and Stephanie Roy as a tortured alcoholic, turn in some moving performances amid the confusion. While the experiment is messy, it ultimately looks like a worthwhile learning process, though perhaps not a thrilling night of theatre.
Presented by Breedingground Productions
at the Flamboyan Theatre at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk St., NYC.
May 16-June 2. Wed., Thu., and Sat., 8:30 p.m.
(347) 683-7698 or www.breedingground.com.