The Minneapolis-based Theatre de la Jeune Lune took a major step forward last season with its acclaimed production of “Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream, ” the opening of its own theater, its East Coast debut as the guest of the Yale Repertory Theater and its five-week run at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. The company is now an associate artist of the American Repertory Theater, but with its current collaborative view of 18th-century Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi’s “The Green Bird” it takes a big step backward.
The main reason is the company’s continuing acceptance of unacceptably amateurish acting. “Children of Paradise,” the company’s heartfelt, intellectually stimulating reaction to the classic French film “Les Enfants du paradis,” soared above its acting deficiencies. Its heavy-handed “Green Bird” doesn’t.
Goldoni’s arch-rival, Gozzi today is less well known through his plays than via such operatic adaptations of them as Puccini’s “Turandot” and Prokofiev’s “The Love of Three Oranges.” The commedia dell’arte fable “The Green Bird” is the sequel to the Gozzi play on which the Prokofiev opera is based.
Given the specialized demands of commedia dell’arte it’s unsurprising that Gozzi’s plays are seldom produced today. Nevertheless, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., had one of its biggest successes with its widely seen Andrei Serban production of Gozzi’s “The King Stag” in the 1980s.
Jeune Lune tries hard to suffuse “The Green Bird” with slapstick and theatrical magic, but fails. None of the production’s acting has the comedic assurance or sophistication needed to bring the satiric comedy-fantasy to life. Most of the characters are battered to death by loud, broad, inept performances.
Even the attempts at visual magic fall flat, be they talking statues, puppets of wildly varying sizes, tightrope walking up to the title bird’s high roost, or the use of a sand-pit stage into and out of which characters and props appear and disappear. Why? Apparently because of insufficient technical expertise.
Plot revolves around royal twins who have survived attempted murder and been raised by sausage seller Truffaldino and his wife, Smeraldina. Gozzi’s satire attacks pretension, pseudo-philosophizing and self-love with lively glee, an element clearly projected in the translation, with its brisk use of modernisms, vulgarisms and the mocking of theatrical conventions. If only the production and the acting had a similarly deft approach.
Ugly ragbag commedia-orientalia costumes and heavily stylized masklike makeup only make the acting look worse. Eric Jensen’s shimmering percussive score, seemingly influenced by Balinese and Japanese music, is the production’s most persuasive element.
“The Green Bird” opened in Minneapolis and will return there after its New Haven run. Jeune Lune is already working on its next production, a collaborative adaptation of Zola’s “Germinal.”