The Orinthologists | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Orinthologists


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Live Bait Theatrical Company

There's a Gospel parable about a farmer who scatters seeds. Some of the seeds get eaten by birds, some fall on inhospitable earth, and some fall on good earth and grow into a crop of one sort or another. Now let's give the parable a new ending. That autumn the bank forecloses on the farmer and the crop is bulldozed to make way for a housing project. The end. Now, try to imagine Jesus sitting there and smiling, perhaps expecting this story to win him a convert or two. Yet all that really happens is a bunch of Israelites stand up and stretch, mill around, and then head out to get something to eat. That's about the way the evening ends with The Orinthologists, Live Bait's parable without a point, worm without a hook, warble without a cause.

The central character is an all-purpose guy, named Guy, who's tired of the rat race and enjoys nothing so much as his new hobby, birdwatching. So Guy quits his job and neglects his family. The hobby becomes an obsession. Gall, Guy's wife, becomes alienated. And his son Jamie will do anything to regain his father's attention, even test-pilot a pair of strap-on mechanical wings that Guy whips up in the garage. Of course, Jamie crashes and burns. In act two Guy takes Gail off to South America to make a fresh start. Guy's obsession with birds shifts from observing them in the wild to possessing them. He acquires a rare and endangered parrot, but alas, it escapes its perch, and Guy runs off into the jungle after it just as Gall is delivering an ultimatum. In the end, both Gall and the bird take off and Guy is reduced to a sniveling wreck.

There's not much to the plot, which moves like it's dragging a broken leg. That Guy's wife will leave him, or that he'll have to choose between her and his bird-watching, is a foregone conclusion. During act two I could hear yawns and sighs all around me. And when the play reached its conclusion, there were no conclusions to be drawn. That's the odd thing about The Ornithologists. There are over a half a dozen references in the play to "drawing conclusions" based on what is seen. A message, a point, is implied at every step of the way, yet one never materializes. Playwright Virginia Smiley even goes so far as to introduce placards with litlle slogans written on them throughout the play. But if slogans like "Things are never as they appear" or "It isn't what you watch, it's how you see" have any significance for you, then a trip to a Hallmark store must rank as a philosophical event.

There are lots of levels and (what used to be considered) avant-garde gizmos in the play. There are two researchers, for instance, who are observing Guy and his family, who, in turn, are unaware that they're part of an experiment. John James Audubon is enshrined in a tree upstage right during the entire play as a sort of patron saint of bird-watching, offering occasional commentary and historical perspective. There's also a Guide in whiteface and black tuxedo who addresses the audience, in a campily smug and familiar way. Then there are a couple characters, Buddy and Pat, who are played by two people apiece for no apparent reason whatsoever. Throw in some bird impressions, dream sequences, audience participation, voice-overs, and stream-of-consciousness monologues and you have a monumental dramatic apparatus in place. But what does it do? Nothing. It just is, like a Mr. Potato Head with everything in the kit stuck on it. I guess all that's left is for the audience to stand back and look and say, "Hey, that is one fancy potato!"

This is only the second production I've seen at Live Bait, but it's enough to suggest that they're less concerned with text than texture. They like an elaborate artsy set, and Sharon Evans's design for The Ornithologists has lots of blue-and-green scalloped drop cloth, resembling feathers. There's a disco interlude with some rather silly bird-watching choreography by Michelle Banks. Other fluff includes parrot costumes and a tiresome recording of bird calls. Featherweight stuff mostly--cute and ornamental, and overdone not in a particularly theatrical way but as if it were the labor of love of an interior decorator who finally got the chance to cut loose and do exactly what he wanted.

Some of this is great fluff though. Jim Janacek's beautiful mechanical wings made of copper tubing are mounted on a backpack and charged by a small tank of compressed air that extends them. They don't work real well, mind you, and they tend to get snarled in the overhead lighting; and, of course, they don't fly. But they certainly lighten up that disco interlude. The parrot costumes aren't much to crow about either (sorry) although Maricela Ochoa flashes a fabulous pair of fluorescent pink feathered panties during a brief courtship encounter. Artfully and coyly flashed, too, by Ochoa.

Several of the performances are also fun, especially in the minor roles. Ted Bales (as the Guide) is so self-possessed and dryly condescending that it's a pleasure to be insulted by him. Celeste Januszewski pulls off a sharply comic satire of a middle-aged Gold Coast widow in a Ronco-studded jumpsuit, with deft little touches like automatically kicking up a heel when she offers her cheek for a hello kiss. John Judd makes a wonderfully absurd first impression as Audubon, his head moving with mechanical jerks (like the robin in Blue Velvet) in perfect sync with a Paul Harvey delivery; but as you might imagine it's an act with progressively diminishing impact.

Indeed, the whole play suffers from the law of diminishing returns. It's as if Smiley sat down to write a play about bird-watching. So she needed some birds, and some people to watch them, and then, yeah, that's it, the whole thing would get really blown out of proportion, and it would be a metaphor for something, life maybe. Yeah, why not?, And after God only knows how much free association, Smiley inflated a motif into a two-hour script. Then, Live Bait, the only local theater since the now-defunct Igloo with an ardently visual-arts approach, got their hands on this script and illustrated it with the imagination and abandon of kids captured indoors on a rainy day. Only problem is, Igloo had vision, and Live Bait's director, Curt Columbus, has only eclectic taste and an eye for style.

Nothing wrong with tasty-deco, not to mention the irregular flashes of wit and silliness in The Ornithologists. It can be amusing, but it's not dramatically sustaining. That is, you can enjoy flipping through one of those humongous copies of Elle magazine, but would you actually read the thing from cover to cover?

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