This season of revelations continues to come up with extraordinary surprises, the latest being Julie Taymor’s staging of Carlo Gozzi’s minor commedia dell’arte classic “The Green Bird,” an unsettling nocturne merging Italian burlesque with this director’s eye-popping, cross-cultural theatrical eclecticism.
“Green Bird” is the current production at the New Victory, which has so far delivered a smashing inaugural season. Broadway’s oldest theater was born again in December as a nonprofit venture aimed at young, family audiences with fare from other theater companies — in this case, Theater for a New Audience, which has been a home to Taymor for several years. Like many of her productions, including “The King Stag,” Taymor’s previous collaboration with Gozzi, “The Green Bird” seems a likely candidate for extended life on tour and on film.
Recently, the director’s profile has significantly increased with her winning of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and her hiring by Disney to adapt “The Lion King” for a live production, possibly across the street from the New Victory at Disney’s New Amsterdam. For those unfamiliar with her artistry, “The Green Bird” is a fine introduction.
The play is both the coming-of-age tale of Renzo and Barbarina (Sebastian Roche and Myriam Cyr), orphaned brother-and-sister twins raised by a crude sausage-maker and his wife (Ned Eisenberg and Didi Conn), and the parallel story of Tartaglia (Derek Smith), a moody, neurotic king still heartsick over the loss of his wife, Ninetta (Kristine Nielsen), long ago banished to a dank netherworld below the castle (don’t ask).
The twins have grown up to become a pair of French-babbling, nonsense-spouting philosophes — Gozzi loathed the French Enlightenment philosophers in vogue in Italy at the time — until a bit of luck transforms them instantly into fellow travelers in the chandeliers-and-champagne set. Tartaglia falls in love with Barbarina, Renzo falls in love with a beautiful statue — there are more than a few echoes here of late Shakespeare — and the king’s witchy mother (Priscilla Shanks), falls in love with a mysterious poet.
There are expeditions into enchanted forests, encounters with a giant, wisdom-spouting stone head, a trio of 10-foot-high singing apples and a sinuous male dancer — sheet-white, including his tutu — impersonating dancing water. There is a magnificent winged Serpentine, a giant mythic creature protecting its garden, and there is a forbidding mountain of skeletons, on top of which dwells the Green Bird, in whose iridescent feathers lies the arcane knowledge that will eventually reconcile all of these disparate stories into one romantic fable with a happy ending.
Christine Jones piles up one hallucinatory setting after the other, and Donald Holder’s lighting adds to the dreamscape quality, as do Constance Hoffman’s beautiful costumes; Steve Bryant’s wild wigs and haunting makeup also demand mention.
Heightening the events onstage is the music of Elliot Goldenthal, sometimes as clatteringly percussive as a gamelan, sometimes whisperingly sweet. Miraculously, one never loses touch with the human tales being spun. The three central characters — Smith’s hangdog Nero of a king, Cyr’s petulant Barbarina and Roche’s callow, impetuous Renzo — have their foolish moments, but in the end we connect with them because of the need roiling beneath the surface of their silliness. All three performances are blithe.
There are, of course, plenty of servants on hand to point out the stupid, blockheaded unreasonableness of all the goings-on, and they are as well-played as their employers: Andrew Weems as Pantalone, Tartaglia’s long-suffering fool, and, especially, Conn and Eisenberg as the twins’ voracious adoptive parents. Conn continues to do yeoman work in demanding enterprises, while Eisenberg steals the show with an adorable combination of gross vulgarity and balletic grace.
The first act of “The Green Bird” has its chilly longueurs, but the second act offers up one astonishing stage image after another as the story unfolds. Among her other attributes, Taymor is unafraid of symbolism and full-throttle storytelling; most of all, she’s unafraid of sex — a good thing considering the rawness of this material. In the end, the Green Bird is revealed as a transformed prince, come back to provide the balanced resolution comedy inevitable demands, which is to say the successful pairing of all available singles.
One image that recurs throughout the play is a brilliant red heart, throbbing inside a skeletal chest, visually as well as metaphorically pumping up the action. “The Green Bird” finally achieves a great poignance in the intimate New Victory. It’s one of the triumphs of the season.