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Theatre in Review: Grief is the Thing with Feathers (St. Ann's Warehouse)

Cillian Murphy. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Metaphors Gone Wild might be a better name for the current attraction at St. Ann's, for, in the American premiere of this new work by Enda Walsh, presented by Wayward Productions in association with Complicité, grief is indeed the thing with feathers. The title character, known only as Dad, has recently been widowed; left with two young boys in a large, desolate London flat, he struggles to get through each day, weighed down with misery. Then, one evening he is disturbed by noises, a strange smell, and -- yes -- a profusion of feathers outside his door. There he discovers "one shiny, jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery, wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle." He is staring at a giant Crow, who tells him, "I won't leave until you don't need me anymore."

Indeed, the Crow becomes an ever-more-dominant presence in the life of Dad and his boys, filling the stage with gestures -- involving lighting, sound, and video -- meant to evoke the punishing nature of Dad's grief, his devastating sense of abandonment following the loss of his wife. Reminiscent of Lear wandering the blasted heath, it's a state of fury and blind panic, a hurricane of terrifying emotion for which the only remedy is endurance.

The Crow is, of course, imaginary, but, as presented here -- the actor Cillian Murphy, who plays Dad, uses a radio mic to voice his feathered tormentor -- he has a specificity and a knack for attention-getting that threatens to hijack the play altogether. The choice of this baleful animal is anything but arbitrary: Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, and among the poet's works is a controversial, possibly unfinished, volume titled Crow, written between 1966 and 1969 -- years between the deaths of Hughes' wife, Sylvia Plath, and his lover, Assia Weevil. The critic Neil Roberts describes Crow as being founded on "trickster mythology," quoting the anthropologist Paul Radin, who describes such a character as someone who "became and remained everything to every man -- god, animal, human being, hero, buffoon, he was before good and evil, denier, affirmer, destroyer, and creator." This is a pretty good description of the Crow's presence in Dad's life.

In his program note, Walsh indicates that the play's text consists of passages taken directly from Max Porter's novel of the same name, and the early passages contain some seriously gorgeous writing. Dad's account of "shuffling around, waiting for shock to give way, waiting for any kind of structured feeling to emerge from the organizational fakery of my days" will induce a shock-of-recognition response in anyone who has lost a loved one. Even as he barely copes with mundane tasks, he says, "I felt that perhaps the main result of her being gone would be that I would become this organizer, this list-making trader in clichés of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines for small children with no Mam." Coping with an onslaught of friends and relatives offering casseroles, books, and hugs, he adds, "I was becoming expert in the behavior of orbiting grievers. Being at the epicenter grants a curiously anthropological awareness of everybody else; the overwhelmed, the affectedly lackadaisical, the nothing so fars, the overstayers, the new best friends of hers, of mine, of the boys." Anyone who writes like this should be better known, and one of the pleasant side effects of this production is that it may lead to more readers of Porter's novel.

The Crow speaks in his own distinct, and rather more oracular, voice: "In other versions, I am a doctor or ghost," he says. "Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts, and crows. We can do things other characters can't, like eat sorrow, unbirth secrets, and have theatrical battles and language and God." You could argue, if so inclined, that the last clause of the previous sentence is a perfect description of Grief as the Thing with Feathers.

The play is at its most effective in its quieter passages, however, before and after the force field of the Crow passes through. Once he seizes control of the stage, the special effects take over and a piece of beautifully theatricalized prose turns into a noisy spectacle that is most successful in calling attention to itself. As mentioned, Murphy, as the Crow, speaks into a mic that distorts his voice in the style of serial-killer films; also contributed by Helen Atkinson, the sound designer, is an armada of effects ranging from traffic to sirens to gale-force storms to Francis Lai's theme from Love Story. (The sound designer provides a number of voiceover sequences, as well as radio broadcasts alluding to terrible weather events clearly linked to climate change but unclear in their relevance to Dad's dilemma.) Jamie Vartan's strangely spare set design -- does the family really live in this underfurnished warehouse?-- provides plenty of space for Will Duke's often-stunning projections, which include thick blocks of text, rolling splotches of black, illustrations (as from a children's book) depicting the Crow's childhood, and home-movie accounts of the boys and their mother (played by Hattie Morahan). Adam Silverman's highly directional lighting is meticulously conceived in certain ways, but it also leaves Murphy's face rather harder to read than one would like: I have a feeling this is intentional but I regret it nonetheless.

This is too bad because, whatever else one thinks of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Murphy is giving an extraordinarily accomplished performance, putting himself through a punishing physical and emotional regimen while switching between the dejected, defeated Dad and the demonic Crow. (In addition to the vocal aid that he gets from the radio mic, costume designer Christina Cunningham has outfitted him in a long robe with a hood; as the Crow, he flips on the latter, letting it half-obscure his face while he leaps around maniacally.) Even as he changes characters in full audience view, it's difficult to believe that they are the work of the same actor.

Once the Crow departs, Grief is the Thing with Feathers once again becomes an emotionally engaging evening, as the action jumps ahead in time to reveal the fate of this little family. (In an amusing touch, the two boys -- played at different performances by David Evans, Leo Hart, Taighen O'Callaghan, and Adam Pemberton -- appear as their adult selves.) The production is a fine display of stagecraft, and, as such, will be of interest to anyone currently working in video and/or sound design. Murphy's work provides many pleasures, too, but there's no denying that, during the highly theatrical middle section, a disconnect takes place. One stops worrying about Dad, focusing instead on the cyclone of special effects. Surely this wasn't the intent, but, as Walsh as shown previously, he is addicted to grand gestures, damn their meaning. In so overstaging the consequences of grief, Walsh once again gives us grand opera when whispers would do. -- David Barbour

(29 April 2019)

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