Theater By Design, at Victory Gardens Studio Theater.
Charlie Chaplin once said that American actors look at one another too much, an observation borne out in Theater By Design's Birdsend, about a developmentally disabled man named Bird who longs to take wing literally. With the notable exception of Jeff Still, the five cast members maintain such a tight onstage focus that the play seems sealed under glass. Only in one beautiful scene, when two lovers meeting in a psychiatric ward face the audience instead of each other, are the actors forced to attend to something other than characterization--namely shaping a scene.
This insular production is typical of theater in Chicago, where even the best actors often labor so intently over their characters' emotional realities that they lose all sense of dramatic purpose. Ralph Flores is a noble and endearing Bird, but by approaching every scene at nearly the same level of intensity he turns his character into something of a broken record. Much of the problem is Keith Huff's repetitive, confused script: characters ostensibly engaged in conflict too often argue their positions for ten minutes on end. Huff has a hard time letting action evolve, and his most intriguing creation--a talking pigeon--does little more than goad Bird to attempt flight. In the end Huff's repetitions and logical inconsistencies--Bird's coworkers unquestioningly share their work space with a pigeon, for example--make Birdsend a bumpy flight.