How rare it is to see any new theater resembling Shakespeare anymore. Few playwrights have the skill – and frankly, the balls – to write stakes of such epic proportions. Birdland, Matthew Minnicino’s new play at Columbia University’s Schapiro Theatre, aspires to climb Shakespearean heights in an homage to today’s ADHD-rattled fascination with postmodernism. Within its DNA lie various strands of melodrama, 16th-century political intrigue, modern-day cabaret clubs, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, childhood molestation, the effects of post-traumatic stress, several extended metaphors relating to birds, and yes, nods to King Lear and Romeo and Juliet.
If it sounds like this melting pot is boiling over, that’s because it is. Minnicino isn’t afraid of sampling genres with abandon or cranking the conflict up to 11 when it could easily rest at 10. But that fearlessness is what makes Birdland such a sensational and arresting night at the theater. Throw in a fiercely talented cast of storytellers, some jazzy original music, and a director (Julia Sears) who can make the stage crackle with electricity, and you might just have a hit.
In a concert hall in 1593 Italy, three world-famous sisters are singing their final performance together before the Duchess of Naples (Erin E. McGuff) marries them off to the highest members of high society. Thrilled and overwhelmed by her own naiveté, Hesperide (Elise Toscano) stammers, “I need to sit down for a few years, er, minutes,” inadvertently foreshadowing their future as untouchable, un-beddable assets of the state. Her two older sisters, Livia (Alexandra Joy Pucci) and Annie (Julia Anrather), aren’t surprised to learn of their fate as caged birds. They take a noticeably more wary approach to matters of the heart, a reverberation of some grim childhood trauma. While Annie is to be married to the straitlaced Ferdinand (Patrick Harvey), Count of Sarno, it is with steely dread that Livia learns she must return to Mantua and stay with their father (Tom Giordano). As his health fades, and Livia reluctantly agrees to help him complete his latest opera, Annie goes to live with her sister and brother-in-law, the amusingly obtuse Valerian (Daniel Abraham). Forced to marry and forbidden to consummate, Annie and her beloved Hesperide struggle to make sense of love in the face of utter powerlessness.
Despite this historical backdrop, Birdland doesn’t feel like another humdrum portrait of the big bad patriarchy. This is thanks mostly to Minnicino’s mishmash of dialogue styles, a device that renders everyone charmingly proper, but also enables Livia, for example, to denounce her father’s fairy tales as “fucked up.” The luscious period costumes by Aleksandra Kolanko – gold, silver and bronze for the precious sisters three – double as modern-day gowns. By straddling contemporary and modern, these characters make regal seem relatable, and strife seem superficial. Hesperide and Valerian’s marital miscommunications are downright comical in Toscano and Abraham’s hands.
And instead of solemn 16th-century requiems, we have Gracie Terzian and Wells Hanley’s smoky, cabaret-esque tunes, which allow each of the sisters a reflective moment in the spotlight. The glint in Pucci’s eye as she wails a second-act showstopper is equal parts menace and grace. Anrather, who grounds the almost-schizophrenic Annie with an exquisite melancholy, coos her ballad: “I’ve been told that love can come and go / so if it ever comes, let me know. / Until that time I’ll wait silently, / listening carefully, quietly.”
This tinge of anticipation captures the play’s structure as much as it does Annie’s lack of agency. The second act is an eruption of choreographed chaos. Opposite the catty Livia, Harvey’s Ferdinand beings to unfurl his talons, revealing the kind of disturbing capacity for violence that pervades this production. Sears orchestrates magnificently fluid transitions, with entrances and exits that ratchet up the tension. By the time Ferdinand returns home to discover a pregnancy as unwelcome as it is impossible, Minnicino may have a few too many balls in the air to juggle. Yet the very real love the sisters share begets a natural and bittersweet conclusion, particularly for the one broken character who might finally be putting herself back together.
At one point amidst act two’s dizzying and devastating twists, my date turned to me and uttered an internet-era pronouncement of praise: “This is everything.” Indeed, between the musical numbers, the emotional trauma, the incest, the awkward comedy, and the finale’s murderous turn of events, this play really is everything. But Sears’ steady hand and commitment to these high stakes keep Birdland from being too much. Considering its short run at Columbia this weekend, I recommend seeing it now before it flies away.
Birdland plays at the Schapiro Theatre at Columbia University, 605 West 115th Street, for a limited engagement. Tickets are free of charge and can be purchased by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting http://www.birdlandtheplay.com/.