If Dali dreamed in cartoons, the result might have been Julie Taymor’s “The Green Bird.” Taking place in a nightscape peopled by orphaned royalty, apples that belt out brassy torch songs, statues spouting philosophical advice and a hero who remains in avian form until the denouement, this revival of an 18th-century commedia dell’arte fantasy is, appropriately, almost miraculously inventive.
The odyssey of self-discovery that is the play’s nominal plot is set in motion when the twins raised by sausage seller Truffaldino (Ned Eisenberg, in a brilliant riff on the Three Stooges) and Smeraldina (Jan Leslie Harding) learn they were foundlings fished from the river as babies.
With their addled young minds filled with a crank philosophy seeing self-love everywhere, the twins Barbarina (Patricia Dunnock) and Renzo (Sebastian Roche) set off to find their destinies, aided by a mysterious Green Bird that seems bewitched by Barbarina and occasional advice from the giant head of an ancient statue, which dispenses moral guidance as needed.
Along the path to true love they are waylaid in the kingdom of Tartaglia (Derek Smith), where miraculous riches descend upon and promptly corrupt them, and the machinations of the king’s evil mother — inspired by the king’s besotted admiration of Barbarina — almost lead to their demise.
It is, in truth, a fairly silly muddle of standard fairy tale and half-baked philosophical satire. Carlo Gozzi’s play has been translated and updated ably enough by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery, with ’90s catch-phrases nimbly worked in: The king, who still mourns the loss 18 years before of his first wife, snaps to his aide-de-camp, “Don’t leave me now. You know I have abandonment issues!” But the text serves primarily as a springboard for Taymor’s marvelous arsenal of theatrical effects; it’s a humble melody on which she and her collaborators work all manner of inspired variations.
Embracing the commedia dell’arte tradition of fitting stock characters with masks, Taymor has designed faces for her actors that give them the keynotes of their characters: Tartaglia’s boxy sad-clown face is the picture of befuddlement , and Smith’s performance matches it to perfection. His evil mother, with a face only Munch could love, is designed as a malign black peacock, and Priscilla Shanks lives up to the evil architecture of the role.
Taymor’s masterful use of puppetry brings to life the title character, who is voiced by Bruce Turk, manipulating the puppet bird onstage while attired in black that blends easily into the background; the conception may sound clumsy on paper, but in the playhouse world Taymor evokes onstage, it takes no concentration to fix one’s attention on the bird and not on the man holding it.
With actors cavorting in painted masks among talking animals and animate statuary, all drawn in a palette of pop-art colors that glow against the starkness of the set’s black-and-white backgrounds, “The Green Bird” is a cartoon brought to life. With its mild scatological humor and physical comedy — amusingly accented by Elliot Goldenthal’s music, which is also eerie and elegant as needed — it’s perfect fare for children weaned on animated video fare. (Disney has tapped Taymor to develop the stage version of “The Lion King,” a choice both adventurous and astute; here’s hoping they maintain the courage of their convictions.)
But Taymor and Co.’s boundless invention, though it invigorates the text immensely, cannot really elevate it. Adult viewers with little taste for low comedy and the archetypal simplicities of fairy tales may leave with the nagging thought that there’s less to “The Green Bird” than meets the eye, and they’ll be right. What remains is all visual, the memory of a dream whose significance has evaporated. Still, it’s a dazzling, lovely dream.