In a back room of an historic Lorin District church, the man in the yellow rubber apron sharpens his knife, intoning in the low light, “In my hometown, everybody knows that everybody had to work in the chicken factory or the prison—and I’ve been in both....”
The portentous words contrast with the speaker’s easygoing manner, and again with his air of constant activity. So Michael McCamish spins out his one-man storytelling show, Twobird, at the old South Berkeley Community Church, doing a stint of recollection, both offhanded and mesmerizing, of the Tennessee roots of his protagonist, Malcolm Bruce.
It’s a solo show, but the name of the presenter, Sun & Moon Ensemble, tells what really goes on during the show as well as behind it. McCamish’s yarn ravels out in the portraits he tells and enacts: Malcolm’s shattered namesake grandfather, called a war hero for surviving the Bataan Death March and POW camp, but who doesn’t even leave a footprint when he slips away and disappears; his father, a fire-eating Scots-Irish preacher, thundering out a sermon like the Reverend Ian Paisley; Uncle Ed, schoolyard bully grown up to be the toughest prison guard; his elegant and ghostly mother, appearing in dreams; his mentor Vidar, a wayward and worldly-wise musician living in the woods outside the segregated town; Mae Bella, the traveling jazz lady, niece of his black “mammy,” whom he falls for; even a skittering, finally high-steppin’ chicken, hatched from the blanket McCamish bursts out from, a ruff of feathers around his neck like an amulet.
McCamish is a one-man ensemble, sketching his characters with stylized gestures and body language. (He was a student of Eugenio Barba of Denmark’s Odin Teatret—but a longtime social worker, too.) He fills out the cast of his story with a languorously elegant masked dance as the dream apparition of Malcolm’s mother and a romantic and funny pas-de-deux with an expressive puppet standing in as Mae Bella.
McCamish, who moved to the neighborhood over a year ago, has been practicing at the church, developing the show for months with director Maria Lexa, who founded Sun & Moon in San Francisco eight years ago on returning after two decades in European theater, giving another facet of meaning to “ensemble.”
But integral to the show in every sense are lighting designer Allen Willner, the half-dozen artists who came up with the costumes, masks and puppets (including chicken shadow puppets), and the musical duo who shade, underline and accent every movement and moment with the sounds of flutes, electric guitar, harmonium, drums and a slew of percussion instruments and voices—singer and multi-instrumentalist Nils Frykdahl and drummer Chuck Squier (who collaborated on set and program art).
Twobird explores both the dark and idyllic sides of coming of age in a Southern town, a while back. The mood seems deceptively simple, but manages many happy surprises in the midst of not-so-happy moments of alienation, crimes of passion and familial grief. Twobird is also capable of pulling humor and good sense out of uplift—Malcolm seeming to soar above his factory bondage, only to crash, waking up in chicken shit, and learning you have to “take it step by step by step.”
The show’s leisurely pacing eases the story along, making 90 minutes paradoxically short. Afterwards, as part of Sun & Moon’s partnering with the church, there’s a tasty meal available—real Southern fried chicken, appropriately, with good sides, dessert, lemonade and iced tea—for a nominal sum that benefits the congregation’s youth programs, a chance to sit down convivially with fellow spectators and the Ensemble for a bite and a chat—a perfect close to a seamless evening of real storytelling theater.
Presented by Sun & Moon Productions at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday at South Berkeley Community Church (Fairview at Ellis). Tickets: $10-25 sliding scale. (800) 838-3006. www.brownpapertickets.com.
Information: (415) 282-4331. sunandmoonensemble.org.