Sleeping Weazel’s ‘Birds and the Bees’ Enjoyably Offbeat (4.5 Stars)
By Mike Hoban
‘The Birds and the Bees’ - Three Short Plays including: ‘The Last Bark’ – Written by Kate Snodgrass, Directed by Melia Bensussen; ‘Birds’ – Written by Adara Meyers, Directed by Shana Gozansky; ‘Beesus & Ballustrada’ – Written Charlotte Meehan; Directed by Melia Bensussen; Set and Costume Design by Mirta Tocci; Sound Design by Oliver Seagle. Presented by Sleeping Weazel at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Black Box Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston through June 11.
“Fringe Theater” is one of those terms that can mean so many things in Boston. Often it refers to a small company with a limited resources doing mainstream work, other times it can be productions that you just don’t want to take your Fox News-watching aunt to for fear her head will explode, and still other times it’s just self-centered crap dressed up as art. The Birds and the Bees, now being staged by Sleeping Weazel, clearly belongs in the second category, and while I might be hesitant to take some of my less creatively inclined friends to this production, it’s a great take for those who like their theater a little more on the adventurous side.
The Birds and the Bees is three short plays that are somehow knitted together to make an almost (but not overly) coherent whole. And although the works may have you saying ‘WTF am I watching?’ at times, all three kept me thoroughly engaged. The first, The Last Bark (written by Kate Snodgrass), finds Boston favorite Steve Barkhimer in the office of his therapist (also played by Snodgrass), kvetching about how his life and the entire world he lives in sucks. “Hitler is running for president and ptomaine is coming out of my (faucet),” he bleats, before shifting to a litany of medical complaints that he’s treating with 15 medications and a not-so-healthy amount of booze. Snodgrass’ short piece also contains some tongue-in-cheek self-effacement, as when Barkhimer (also playing an actor) complains about being in a lousy play that he feels “is sucking the life out of him”.
When his therapist begins to openly mock him for his failure to address any of his issues in an adult manner, and starts taking long pulls from a flask (and later guzzles out of an open bottle of Absolut), we surmise that this is probably not a technique recognized by the American Psychological Association, and that something unusual is afoot. There is, and although what’s coming next is a potentially earth shattering situation for our protagonist(s), it allows him to experience a few moments of peace in his (self-generated) frenetic life. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny.
The second piece, Birds (written by Adara Meyers) is a Kafka-esque tale – also with laughs. Toby is an idealistic student at the American Institute for Stress (not stress management, mind you – which is telling) who is conducting a study of why pigeons are flying directly into windows and killing themselves. Although well-intentioned, he’s a bit full of himself, as we glean when he haughtily tells his professor (also played by Barkhimer), “I am committed in every area of my life.”
What follows next is a series of bizarre actions on the part of the teacher designed to get Toby to fall in line with the other sycophant students (conveniently labeled as 1,2, and 3), who unquestioningly obey the teacher’s absurd commands and praise him for his genius at every turn. Toby also has a punky girlfriend Rose, whom we see slowly move towards the school’s way of thinking as the teacher wears her down (and possibly seduces her). So the question is, will Toby snap and overthrow the professor or will he acquiesce and become just another bootlicking cypher like his classmates? This piece is extremely absurd, but has some strong moments.
The final piece, Beesus & Ballustrada (by Charlotte Meehan) is a post-apocalyptic romance that has all the elements of the great love stories – love, lust, loss, regret, reconciliation – in one short play. Civilization has apparently been destroyed and our title characters appear to the only ones left to propagate the human race. Ballustrada's (played by Karen MacDonald) job in the new world order is to keep an eye on the squirrels, while Beesus (Cliff Odle) allegedly oversees the birds. The two meet in a park in Brooklyn and the courtship begins awkwardly before moving into hyperdrive, literally changing every 10-20 seconds – from love, to indifference, to sorrow, and then back to love – in the time it takes me to brush my teeth in the morning.
The breakneck pace could have easily devolved into a mess, if not for the brilliant work of MacDonald and Odle, who effortlessly transition from one complex emotion to the next, bringing Meehan’s work to a fully realized state. The pair are like two formerly brilliant, wet-brained alcoholic street people, sparring one moment, then sobbing or proclaiming their love for one another the next. The piece is alternately funny and touching, and really worked for me on an impressionistic level.
The three plays could easily have been lost episodes of the Twilight Zone (or more precisely, the lesser-known Outer Limits) only with a stronger focus on the comic rather than the surreal. What makes them really work is the execution. The pieces are well-directed by Melia Bensussen (Bark and Beesus & Ballustrada) and Shana Gozansky (Birds) and the performances, even beyond the star power of Barkhimer, MacDonald and Odle are solid. Mirta Tocci’s set design is imaginative and multifunctional, with no set changes required for the three disparate pieces. This production may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it represents “Fringe Theater” in the best sense of the word. For more info, go to: http://www.sleepingweazel.com/upcoming-events/