Production trumps script in “Copper Thunderbird,” a visually stunning but generally disappointing world premiere production intended as a tribute to Norval Morrisseau. In a script top-heavy with symbolism, playwright Marie Clements depicts key elements in the life of the renowned Canadian Ojibway artist, focusing on a series of trinities.
Morrisseau the artist, the Indian, the shaman. Morrisseau, the alcoholic, the failed husband, the thunderbird (the name given him by an Ojibway medicine woman and an image he often used in his paintings.). Morrisseau as boy, young man, old man — frequently onstage at the same time.
Auntie, the character representing the white influences in his life, appears three times. Three actors in bear costumes are his drinking buddies during his alcoholic phases. He even had three wives, giving Clements one more trinity to fit the pattern she drives home. And, of course, there has to be a trinity of three thunderbird effigies (instead of three crosses) bearing the faces of the three Morrisseaus.
Clements does break the pattern occasionally, most notably to make mocking comments about whites.
Presented as a set of recollections, the 1987 starting point of “Copper Thunderbird” is a detoxification center, where the old Morrisseau recalls his life while attempting to dry out.
Past and present blend, sometimes effectively, sometimes embarrassingly badly. An extended scene of simulated sex, for example, falls into the embarrassing category, while the final tableau of characters wearing the primary colors and images Morrisseau uses in his paintings is the highlight of this otherwise mediocre show.
Perfs range from fine — Michelle St. John is the standout — to adequate and stereotypical. Only Peter Hinton’s stylish direction and Mary Kerr’s set design keep the production afloat. Without considerable rewriting, this bird is not ready to fly.