The Tale of the Green Bird is the most daring play that ever issued from my inkwell,” declared Carlo Gozzi, the 18th-century Italian fabulist. “Daring” is a relative term, of course. But when the dizzyingly original Gozzi claims something as his most daring work, that really says something.
And yet chances are that audiences don’t know Gozzi except at an operatic remove: His best-known plays, Turandot and The Love of Three Oranges, provided the basis for musical masterworks by Puccini and Prokofiev. Students of Italian drama may also remember Gozzi as the loser in a once-famous literary battle, in which his rival Goldoni was crowned victor by a public which ultimately preferred the latter’s realistic, bourgeois comedy of manners. It is largely because drama took a right turn at the Goldoni-Gozzi intersection heading toward psychological realism and away from pure commedia and fantasy that Gozzi has languished as one of the theatre’s under-appreciated geniuses.
But such remarkable talent couldn’t be neglected entirely, and it may well be that the world wasn’t ready for Gozzi until this century. Some adventurous modern directors Meyerhold, Reinhardt, Strehler, Serban have risen to the challenge of Gozzi’s bold theatricality. To this list of interpreters may now be added Theatre de la Jeune Lune, whose production of The Green Bird is scheduled to run through Jan. 29 at the company’s home base in Minneapolis.
Jeune Lune’s ebullient staging of this 1765 fairy-tale play has been produced in collaboration with New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre. After a preliminary stint in Minneapolis last November. The Green Bird transferred for a three-week run at Yale during December, where Yale Drama School students performed in minor roles and design student Henry Dunn assisted company members Vincent Gracieux and Steven Epp in creating the show’s inventive scenography.
And it is inventive design above all that The Green Bird demands. Consider this abbreviated list of events which must be portrayed onstage: The royal twins Renzo and Barbarina throw a magic stone, which instantly turns into a mansion. A statue named Calmon, who was a man before his cynical philosophy ossified him, speaks sage advice to the youths. Another statue, the once-vain Pompea, reverts to flesh-and-blood thanks to Renzo’s successful quest for the Waters that Dance and the Apples that Sing.
Then there is the good queen Ninetta who lies imprisoned beneath the palace’s kitchen drains, while the title character–actually, a prince bewitched by an ogre flies to her with food and drink to sustain her life. Finally, at the play’s happy ending, the wicked queen-mother is turned into a turtle, and her poet-accomplice into a jackass. With a storyline like this, it’s little wonder if directors and designers alike tremble at the name of Gozzi.
Blend of dramatic styles
But physical theatricality is Jeune Lune’s raison d’etre, and according to dramaturg performer Robert Rosen, it was Gozzi’s blend of dramatic styles–commedia with orientalism with fairy tale that especially piqued their interest: “The worlds that he meshes are fantastic and a challenge to stage. We discussed in rehearsal the idea that these characters defend not only their different journeys, but their styles you have this world meeting that world. Both have to stick to their rules, and yet you have to create a common ground for them to work in.”
Although director Gracieux admits that the show was at times “pure hell” to mount, The Green Bird has also elicited from the 15 year-old company some exuberant solutions to these hellish staging challenges.
How, for instance, is one to portray a talking statue? The designers passed on the more obvious ideas of using a statue with a voiceover, or a plaster-encrusted actor a la the Commendatore in Don Giovanni. Instead, Calmon adopts three amusingly varied incarnations. At his first appearance, we see only a monstrously huge face (made of coated styrofoam and operated from behind by three crew members, who tilt the head and manipulate the jaw and eyeballs) accompanied by an enormous hand which gestures freely and at one point scoops up the twins. Later in the play, the scale shifts to the other extreme as Calmon becomes a tiny puppet-head, emerging from the mouth of a magic serpent. Finally, the video image of a real Roman bust is projected on the back wall; as this Calmon floats around in space, his chin is made to bob up and down as he speaks.
For their designs, Epp and his colleagues claim visual inspiration from the surrealist painters Magritte and Dali, as well as from Kabuki theatre; the show’s platform, for instance a huge, raised box filled with white sand is extended on either side by long entrance ramps typical of the Kabuki stage. Perhaps nothing in this show bet captures a sense of magic than when performers (with the aid of two trapdoors and sturdy, unseen stagehands) make their seemingly impossible entrances from the sand below.
The real godfather of this scenography, however, is a more recent surrealist–Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. Just as his famous cartoon sequences revel in sudden shifts of scale–huge feet, for example, abruptly entering a frame of tiny human figures so does Jeune Lune’s production. And Gilliam draws characters who, as Epp observes, “gobble up other images or open up their mouths to reveal something else,” much like TJL’s magic snake, who opens his mouth to reveal Calmon and the Apple that Sings.
Delightful as this visual exuberance is, The Green Bird is far more than an excuse for spectacle. The play traffics in the sort of mythic fantasy that Freudian and Jungian critics salivate over, and civilized cultures ignore to their peril.
In place of wise and just rulers, a stable sense of identity, and secure social commitments, one finds in The Green Bird precisely what humans seem to fear or puzzle over most. The King instantly forgets his love for Ninetta upon meeting Barbarina, for whom he lusts incestuously until he discovers she’s his daughter. The twins earlier have turned their backs on their foster parents without the least twinge of conscience or gratitude.
The enigmatic title figure is sometimes life-giving, sometimes life-threatening. “As the green bird says at one point, I’m your friend but also your enemy,” notes Gracieux. Present also is the perennially fascinating theme of long-lost royal heirs being found, as well as Ovidian metamorphoses of humans into animals or statues into humans. And then there is the play’s very crude scatological and sexual humor, which has been vigorously preserved in Albert Bermel and Ted Emery’s superb translation.
Worlds of myth and commedia
Just about the only thing that Gozzi did not aim at presenting was the sort of realism that was gaining a foothold in literature in the 18th century. Says Gracieux, “Gozzi was completely against what Goldoni was doing, which was to show realistically the life of people and the conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.”
Gozzi didn’t mine the worlds of myth and commedia simply out of an antiquarian’s conservatism, much less on a whim. Instead, he found in the stories’ overt aggression, unrestrained passions and non-rationality a more truthful depiction of the world’s divine comedy than what Goldoni’s realism could afford.
But you don’t need to analyze Gozzi’s stories in order to sense their appeal. “We found that people have a very strong and personal response to those stories,” Epp declares. “There’s something about the simplicity and directness of fairy tales that is so provocative. The archetypal characters and situations you find in them open up your imagination. They can be silly and childlike, and yet they’re not frivolous.”