Julie Taymor, who uncaged a major feline on Broadway a few seasons back, returns with a more modest but no less visually resplendent creature in “The Green Bird.” A freewheeling adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s 18th century comedy-fantasy, Taymor’s latest animal is a perfectly charming alternative to Broadway’s more glitzy family entertainments. The question is how many families will be willing to pop for $ 75 tickets to a show that the kiddies aren’t likely to be clamoring for. Gozzi does not, after all, have the must-see appeal of Simba.
In fact, “The Green Bird” was distinctly more delightful when it was originally produced (with a $ 25 top ticket) in 1996 by Theater for a New Audience, at the family-oriented New Victory Theater. (The production was later re-staged at the La Jolla Playhouse.) It has been embellished for Broadway in ways that dampen the appeal of its primarily visual delights. Gozzi’s tale of royalty straying on the path to true love is slight and somewhat archly whimsical, and the play’s humor, in Albert Bermel and Ted Emery’s contemporary translation, is strictly juvenile. Alas, both the archness and the juvenility have been exaggerated for Broadway, resulting in a coarser-toned production. At 2 1/2 hours, with a long intermission and a splashy musical finale, “The Green Bird” now feels dangerously attenuated.
The plot mixes classic commedia dell’arte archetypes with more exotic elements. It follows the wandering fortunes of Barbarina (Katie MacNichol) and Renzo (Sebastian Roche), two youngsters who’ve been robbed of their royal inheritance by a wicked grandmother. Kids of a philosophical bent, they set out on a journey of self-discovery when they learn that the sausage-sellers who raised them aren’t their real parents at all. Scornful of affection, and seeing self-love everywhere, they are guided on a path to a more humane philosophy by some supernatural assistants, including a giant, talking stone statue and a green bird who flutters protectively around Barbarina and is, in fact, a spellbound prince.
Taymor has gathered a talented array of designers to execute her vision, and their contributions are so well integrated that it’s sometimes hard to know who’s responsible for what. Christine Jones’ sets are stark and simple, employing colorful adorning details that stand out against background canvases of white, black or gold. Constance Hoffman’s mostly black and white costumes are unfailingly inspired — one of the show’s delightful surprises arrives when Barbarina and Renzo’s papier-mache newsprint togs are ripped away in an instant when their fortunes rise, to reveal shiny, silken garb. Donald Holder’s artful lighting mixes Crayola-bright colors and dramatic combinations of spotlights and shadows.
Taymor herself has supplied the production’s wondrously clever puppetry and masks. With the exceptions of the young heroes, the characters all wear masks or half-masks that give fixed form to an essential aspect of their characters. The mournful king Tartaglia has his misery etched on his face, and Derek Smith finds such a wonderfully vivid voice for this whiny, put-upon ruler that his mask seems to change with his moods. Tartaglia is under the cruel thumb of his wicked mother, who’s costumed to look like a sparkling black insect, with an exaggerated bustle and a wormy, curdled-looking wig. She is played with imperious panache by Edward Hibbert. Didi Conn and Ned Eisenberg, as the unhappily married sausage-sellers, also turn their masked characters into ripe comic types. In fact it’s the unmasked MacNichol and Roche who have the hardest time creating plausible characters from the somewhat fey dialogue they’re given.
There are many wonderful, indescribable visual setpieces that inspire delighted gasps, particularly a musical interlude in the second act featuring a trio of levitating, singing apples and an inventively staged sing-along gag. (Elliot Goldenthal’s marvelously textured music is sometimes eerie, sometimes full of tongue-in-cheek showbiz verve.) The animal of the title is a Bunraku-style puppet manipulated and voiced by Bruce Turk, clad in effacing black. Such is the artfulness of his and Taymor’s work that the bird’s transformation into human form in the end almost comes as a disappointment.
The parade of visual enchantments may not, however, hold the attention of adult audiences for the duration of the show. While eyes are being dazzled, the ears can grow tired at the consistently broad level of the humor and the rudimentary progress of the fairy-tale plot (at an hour and a half, say, without an intermission, this wouldn’t be such a problem).
Commedia dell’arte is one of those popular — and essentially lowbrow — forms that is forever being magnanimously embraced and defended and revived by highbrow artists. It’s not really art of a sophisticated order, and it requires a surprisingly sly and delicate touch if it is to distinguish itself from its common contemporary equivalents — which are to be found, free of charge, at the click of a remote control. Although its visual allures are still intact, this Broadway incarnation of Taymor’s “Green Bird” seems to have lost that touch. While kids may be delighted from start to finish, perhaps only adult theatergoers of a curatorial bent will find “The Green Bird” an entirely rewarding evening of theater.