The Mormon Bird Play is a challenging piece of theater. Six male actors play young girls. And birds. And Mormon pioneer women, who might also be birds. Making its world premiere on Oct. 28 at Washington Ensemble Theatre, this play by triple threat Roger Benington (playwright/director/set designer) envisions the environs of Salt Lake Temple as a nest of superstition, secrets, miracles, and black magic.
In present day Salt Lake City, not far from the tourist-attracting Temple Square, mute, ugly orphan Ivona (Parker Matthews) discovers a dead starling, wraps it in a scarf, and somehow brings it back to life. Her cousins, Clifford (Devin Bannon) and Brenda (Noah Luce), are uncertain how to take this miraculous turn of events. Their bubbly neighbor, Pipa (Jeremy Behrens), is convinced that she has the answer to the mystery: “Ivona was queen of her own kingdom, and then she came here.” Queen of a bird kingdom, to be precise.
As portrayed by Matthews, Ivona is more “Christ figure” than bird queen. Gaunt-cheeked, shaven-headed and hollow-eyed, he is the image of a concentration camp survivor. Though the female characters aren’t dressed in drag and look as if they strolled in off the streets of Capitol Hill, Matthews wears a ragged baby doll dress over his jeans and a dead bird around his neck like a pendant or, perhaps, a millstone. As Ivona’s strange powers and her unaccountable silence continue to assert themselves, the children alternately treat her as an angel and a devil. “She’s like a little broken bird you have to take care of,” Brenda says. “She’s an evil spirit,” Clifford counters.
It’s difficult to say whether the play is flawed because it is so idiosyncratic. At both the outset and midpoint of The Mormon Bird Play, the characters transform into anthropomorphic birds, substituting the word “tweet” for a variety of verbs and nouns including, most tellingly, “God.” The overarching Mormonism of the play makes the playwright’s message elusive. References are made throughout to “Jack Mormons,” “Pioneer prayers,” “the war in heaven,” “speaking in tongues,” and the intricacies of Mormon baptism.
Were it called The Catholic or Protestant Bird Play, Ivona’s (probable) status as a stand-in for Jesus would be blatantly obvious. Symbols such as the blood she sheds after a sexual assault by the excommunicated neighborhood bad boy Evan (Ashton Hyman), her ability to raise the dead, her literal crowning as a monarch by her friends/disciples, and their later rejection — all these pieces would fit neatly together to form a post-modern reaction to 21st century Christianity.
However, Benington’s play, which was inspired by polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s absurdist work Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, is decisively Mormon. Meaning that unless one resorts to a Wikipedia-fueled interpretation of the playwright’s intentions, vast tracts of the work are in danger of missing their mark with the audience. For example, the latter half of Act One is devoted to a Freemason-like initiation ceremony between four bird people and Evan. Evan is made to strip to his underwear and don white clothes, including a fringed cape and a floppy cap. Resembling a milkman who borrowed a little something from Liberace’s closet, Evan is put through “three degrees of anguish.” These include watching two birdmen enact a strip tease in the style of Gypsy Rose Lee, learning some secret hand shakes, and being passionately kissed by a man who looks Amish, but is probably supposed to be the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith.
Is this meant to be an ornithological parody of the process of Mormon baptism? Possibly. Evan’s return to the neighborhood, unchanged and entirely unfazed, at the beginning of Act Two renders the ordeal he went through all the more bizarre.
As confusing as this might be to the audience, the actors seem to be in on Benington’s underlying message. As an ensemble, the six men make a cohesive sextet. One of their strongest moments comes toward the end, during a dream sequence about the Mormon migration to Utah, when the actors don pioneer dresses and bonnets in order to undertake the heart-wrenching task of telling one of their number (Barry Cogswell) that her bastard newborn baby is dead. Cogswell’s primal wail, in full-throated male baritone, was a wonderfully unsettling moment of theater.
The all-male casting offers the actors a unique opportunity to channel two genders, while exploring themes of abuse, homosexuality, social ostracism, and religious dogma. When Yvette (Cogswell) — a girl uncannily similar to Ivona, who claims to be a friend from a semi-Mormon Idaho town — arrives to coax Ivona home, the children initially fight to retain their bird queen. “She gotten under her skin? She does that. Like a mite. She bores,” Yvette says. It isn’t long before the children turn on their unspeaking, misshapen friend.
Benington, who was born in South Africa, is a graduate of both Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. Still, at least in this production, his feelings about Mormonism are not coherent. One thing does come through throughout though — the characters and their personal angst always seem genuine.
If you go: The Mormon Bird Play runs through Nov. 21 at Washington Ensemble Theatre. $10-$25. For tickets, visit www.washingtonensemble.org.