In 1765, Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi wrote his complex political and psychological fairy tale “The Green Bird” in an attempt to resuscitate the dying art form of commedia dell’arte.
Commedia dell’arte, which even then had been around for 200 years, is a theater form rooted in broad stylized boffo comedy, masks, stock characters, and improvisation by actors around a loose story scenario.
On Wednesday, Berkeley Repertory Theater opened a newly commissioned translation and adaptation of the play that mixes aspects of the commedia style with the Japanese popular theater form Kabuki, in a synthesis that might be called "Kabuki dell'arte."
Produced as a world premiere by Berkeley Rep, this production includes the participation of several artists from Minneapolis's renowned Theatre de La Jeune Lune, which specializes in stage productions containing stylized physical performances and striking visual concepts.
In director/designer Dominique Serrand's staging, the playing area is a large sandbox, backed by vertical and horizontal beams that suggest Japanese architecture.
The poet/narrator of the play Brighella (also Serrand) slowly emerges vertically up through the sand to set the production's tone of visual surprise.
Costumer Sonya Berlovitz has dressed her characters in a colorful mix of Middle Ages western and Japanese costuming, but with a satirical slant, and sometimes bawdy touches.
For example, sausage-makers Smeraldina (the hilarious Sarah Agnew) and Truffaldino (Geoff Hoyle) have grotesque butt-cracks (fakes ones, it turns out) showing on the backsides of their costumes.
So this is going to be an evening of fun, in a story that tells of real human search, conflict and dilemma, but in a framework loaded with silliness.
Steven Epp's adaptation – a mix of the sublime, the ridiculous and the scatological–includes philosophical speculation, psychobabble, dot-com jokes, and many references to the bowels.
Most of the acting is broadly comedic and over the top. A percussionist sits above the stage for the duration of the show, banging drums and sticks to punctuate the play's action.
“The Green Bird” is a long, complicated political and psychological fantasy that covers a lot of ground.
In the set-up, Queen Ninetta (Rachelle Mendez) gives birth to twins while King Tartaglia (Vincent Gracieux, in one of the evening’s sturdiest and funniest performances) is away at war.
But the king’s evil and jealous mother Tartagliona (Brian Baumgartner in grotesque drag) orders the children killed and the wife buried alive.
The twins survive by a fluke, raised by two sausage-makers. They set out as young adults on a magical and dangerous quest of self-discovery.
Along the way, they meet an enormous serpent and a giant talking head (former Blake Street Hawkeye Robert Ernst).
A mysterious green bird (Michael Edo Keane) weaves through the story and becomes the vehicle for discovery and, resolution. Justice prevails, and the story has a happy ending.
Much of “The Green Bird,” is about parent and child conflict, and about emotional coming of age. Often it makes its points on a subconscious, intuitive level, using its uniquely theatrical language. Typically, the plot turns on moments of visual stage magic.
But having said that, for much of Wednesday’s opening night, the production of “The Green Bird” felt out of sync.
The staging and the story seemed to run self-consciously on two separate tracks, and didn’t merge in a single focus until the second half.
Some of this may be due to the very complicated technical aspects of the show not being quite up to speed on opening night. Perhaps some of this feeling will smooth out as the Berkeley Rep run progresses. Although “The Green Bird” begins as a fairly simple-sounding fairy tale, the story quickly gets stranger and stranger, darker and darker, and more and more complicated.
At it’s best, this Kabuki dell’arte production expresses the illogical and contradictory nature human experience on a non-rational, intuitive level.
Be warned about the dangers of getting what your dream for, this production tells us. Human beings do not fully understand the power of dreams.
“The Green Bird,” runs through Oct. 27. (510) 845-4700. Advanced tickets for all shows, except Saturday night, are $15.99 for anyone under age 30.