conceptualized and written by Brian Booth
presented by Amoskeag Studio
This thing: what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what is its causal nature (or form)? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 8
Every year we die a little and the world keeps on spinning. Red Bird, are you listening? Are you there?
Once we were rich;
Now we eat our dead.
-Brian Booth, RED BIRD
Theatre relies on the convergence of any number of components and circumstances in order to be successful.
Above all, there must be a story: a well-crafted thematic arc which gives rise to credible, sympathetic characters, and which allows those characters to move from initial conflict to rising action to resolution.
Not just "a" story: THE story; an accounting so compelling that it draws you in, keeps you for as long as it needs to, and only then releases you, sending you back out into the world with the knowledge that you have not merely borne witness to a tale, but that the very hearing of it has changed you, to the very marrow in your bones.
That's the story we're talking about with RED BIRD, Brian Booth's brilliantly dark theatre piece, a one-man play with music which will be performed at the Amoskeag Studio May 8-16.
An invitation-only audience was in the house on April 29 for a performance of the work, which was followed by a talkback session. Booth intends to take the feedback he received and use it to sharpen and clarify RED BIRD prior to its inaugural launch.
Not that it needs much: RED BIRD is riveting theatre as written, and the principle thing it needs to make it better is to keep performing it.
A warning: if you feel that plays with music need to follow a specific format, or that the story must end on a note of unambiguous contentment for all concerned, then you won't like RED BIRD, and should not attend.
However; if you like theatrical pieces that take you down unsettling paths and into dark corners, and music which doesn't necessarily help move the plot along but rather adds another layer to an already richly lacquered anecdote, then by all means, RED BIRD is for you.
RED BIRD is told by the narrator in the first person, following the life of an unnamed young man and relating the events in RED BIRD from the boy's perspective.
We know know little about him except that he has the gift of singing, that he dreams, and that he is alone. He occupies a time and place scorched and torn by some kind of apocalyptic event. Civilization has undergone a fundamental shift, hearkening back to the nascent days when the laws of man were barely formed in the womb of democracy; all that has gone before has either passed away into dust, or left charred and desiccated by the holocaust.
Strange creatures and revenants now hold sway over the blasted landscape; the boy is visited by them, and some of them seem to him beings which occupy the skin of other humans, but only just; he hides himself away from them, and from the citizens of the diseased and ruined towns which loom crepitously down dark roads away from him, keeping to his ruined homestead, alone save for a radio which broadcasts the meanderings of a faraway man whose mind is clearly bent by the darkness which has fallen over the world, watching over a nightscape lit red by fires burning along the ridges which surround his lands.
The boy's solitary existence ends when he is visited by a young girl, who one night comes unbidden into his home, travelling up the stairs to his bedroom and settling in there as if it were her own; he knows nothing of her except that she, like he, sings. And dreams.
The boy comes to understand three things: that the girl is something other than human, that she is there for shelter, at least for a time, and that in her singing and dreaming she brings him a mission- one of terrible import, and one which will change them both in ways no human has ever had to imagine.
RED BIRD sets itself apart as a theatrical piece in a number of ways; first, it forgoes the normal raison d'être of the traditional play. Don't look for explanations; accept that the circumstances of RED BIRD are exactly what they are meant to be, and that the characters are doing exactly what they're supposed to, and that things will unfold as they should.
Second, the play's structure charts less of a linear arc and more of a meandering path. It's an organic piece, flowing from moment to moment, doubling back upon itself or following a tangent which, on its surface, seems unrelated to the story (it isn't).
Third, RED BIRD's songs, a melange of southern rock, folk, and blues, don't relate directly to the narrative- they don't help move the plot along as they might in a more traditional musical, but instead serve as portals to get the narration from one moment to the next. One is taken out of the story by the songs, only to be put back into it, at a different point. At first it's disconcerting, but taken as a whole underscores and augments the story in a way that serves the entire play. This is not a musical; it's a play with music, and the rules for a musical don't apply in the same ways to RED BIRD.
Finally, RED BIRD is a parable, but one turned upside down and filled with grave import; it's not meant to teach, but to caution. It's a story of a world riddled with places of unimaginable power; magic, perhaps, but magic which is alien and elemental, which has burst its bonds and spread itself over its host like a malignancy. Those who occupy the world cannot help but be touched by it; some are consumed, some crippled, but all are changed.
This is the world of RED BIRD: a dystopian place of eternal shadow, populated by an abject snarl of humanity teetering at the edge of civilization's wrack and tatter, no longer the lords of creation, but infected and debased by its toxic nature, forever consigned to exist under its pestilent thrall.
As a performance piece, actor Brian Booth has framed RED BIRD in an elegantly spartan context. There is no scenery. No costumes. No set pieces, light plot, or special effects.
Part bard, part balladeer, Booth stands before his audience dressed casually, holding a cream-colored Danelectro guitar with nifty lipstick pickups, framed by his mic, a couple stools, and his amps. He's a lean and pleasant-looking fellow who speaks and sings in a mellifluous tenor.
Although he's a native son of New Hampshire's North Country, Booth's voice carries a sonorous lilt reminiscent of the Deep South, which infuses the Yankee bedrock tones of RED BIRD's thesis with an Appalachian Gothic sensibility.
Booth keeps both the pitch of his voice and his movements on stage low-key and tantalizingly persuasive, weaving a story-spell in the confessional style of Spaulding Gray or Anne Sexton; in keeping everything spare and close to the bone, Booth expands upon the themes within the body of the piece, weaving an opulent mental tapestry filled with vivid imagery, using the spoken word as well as song lyrics as his palette.
In so doing, Booth draws us nearer to RED BIRD's beating heart, until the story grasps us in its talons, unfolding tenebrous wings to bear us up and away into the darkness, so that it can do with us what it was always meant to do; it is a testament to Booth's abilities as a singer and a storyteller that RED BIRD succeeds on every level it aims for.
RED BIRD is, in and of itself, what it is meant to be- a damned fine play. With damned fine music. And it tells one hell of a good story.
Is there any hope at all in RED BIRD, you ask? Redemption? Is there light in the darkness? Does the world remain an awful, blistering furnace, eager to burn all who come within reach? Do the terrible engines of dark magic falter and stall, tumbling back into the infernal pits which birthed them?
What happens to the boy, and the girl who may not be a girl at all- and what exactly, does the "red bird" in the title refer to?
Ah. For those answers- if, indeed, there are any- you'll have to sit in the audience, listen to the story, hear the songs, and judge for yourself.
Go, and let RED BIRD do to you what it's meant to do.
Postscript: RED BIRD marks the start of something very new and interesting in terms of performance- for both Amoskeag Studio and the area. New types of theatre, and the venues which host them, deserve your patronage. Consider attending RED BIRD, as well as all types of theatre, when you can.
RED BIRD runs May 8-16 at Amoskeag Studio in the Waumbec Mill, 250 Commercial Street, Suite 2700, Manchester NH.
RED BIRD contains mature themes which may not be suitable for all ages; parental discretion is advised.
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Michael J. Curtiss is a writer and playwright residing in Southern NH. When not acting as a freelance theatre critic, he oversees online marketing and social media for Costumes of Nashua LLC & Creative Costuming, based in Hudson, NH, and administers THE GRANITE STAGE page on Facebook.