How should we instruct a child to go forward in life after a tragedy that deprives him of a treasured sibling, his only source of happiness? To answer this question, EgoPo stages an ambitious production of Bluebird, based on Maurice Maeterlinck's similarly titled mythical fable of 1908.
Maeterlinck wrote his play at a time when many children needed to hear something that helped explain Germany's high infant mortality rates, then hovering at about 25%. Maeterlinck's answer draws on the Bluebird, a symbol of happiness in European mythology. His play opens on nine-year-old Tyltyl (Sean Lally), who is unable to accept the death of his twin sister Mytyl (Kelsey Malone), lying on her deathbed with an empty birdcage hanging over the headboard. Having already lost his mother and eight siblings to disease, Tyltyl is traumatized and still imagines that Mytyl can come to life and play.
The fairy Bérylune (Sarah Schol) appears and charges Tyltyl with an arduous task: He must find another "bird that's blue," another source of happiness. In Molly Rice's adaptation, this quest assumes epic proportions. Across a dozen sets and the introduction of more than two-dozen characters, Tyltyl and Mytyl traverse a deep forest, enter the lands of Night, and venture beyond the realm of human reason and understanding.
A forest in the audience
Orchestra 2001 plays George Crumb's piano and violin music to underscore the action, and Schol and Katie Gould (as Light) sing lyrics drawn from the text. As the suitably childish pair progress from one mystical land to the next, Malone rightly stares with eyes wide and vacant and full of wonder.
After creating a forest of trees in the seats that flank the center rows, set designer Daniel C. Soule fills the stage with gorgeous pieces that ground a mythical journey where terror and catastrophe threaten to affect the two children permanently. In their encounter with Time (Andrew Gorell), Mytyl and Tyltyl enter a glorious staging of ascending columns occupied by the souls of children not yet born. Later, under Matt Sharp's eerie red lighting, a series of stalactites descends across the Land of Darkness.
The passage of time, visualized
Here, Night (the excellent Nick Allin) guards the entrance with a creepy pair of chanting children: Sleep (Jordan Doolittle) and her sister Death (Allyson Doolittle). Tyltyl and Mytyl encounter war in an exciting battle choreographed with flashlight tipped poles. Later, Sickness threatens to entrance Tyltyl in the terrifying yet beautiful rhythm of their danse macabre. In both scenes, a multimedia background allows a vivid realization of the concepts: the passage of time pouring down on the children, and then a haunting flock of dying bluebirds, representing the crushed happiness of life.
Throughout, Jamie Grace-Duff takes full advantage of a costumer's rare opportunity to clothe more than 30 characters, her outfits ranging from Light's cellophane dress and flowered garlands to the priest-like robes of both Time and Night. When the action intensifies, music plays throughout those scenes, but these touches only highlight an imbalance that forms one of the main drawbacks of EgoPo's production.
Too often, Lane Savadove's direction allows dead, empty moments to linger onstage, particularly during Act One, where the aforementioned characters introduce themselves. While these actors enthusiastically portrayed their roles (particularly Doug Greene's Dog), Maeterlinck clearly included them solely to amuse the children in the audience, as many of these characters contribute little to the rest of the play. Better lighting or sound, a sense of magic— anything could have enhanced each individual performance during this long process, and a more fully scored musical version of the play would have conveyed a sense of operatic grandeur. Otherwise, this Bluebird often lacks the wings to carry its mostly adult audience.
As the Bluebird flies on, Tyltyl must chase it far beyond the edge of human understanding. But those of us seeking enlightenment— for themselves or their children— should steer clear of Maeterlinck's answers.
Pessimistic German mysticism
In his quest for happiness, Light leads Tyltyl to the palace of Luxury (a riotously funny Rob Neddoff), instructing him to find what "lies beneath the surface" of Luxury's hedonistic orgy, and remarking— almost prudishly— that these pleasures really belong in the cavern of sickness. Like his contemporary Schopenhauer (and later Heinrich Heine), Maeterlinck's wisdom lies in the pessimistic tradition of German mysticism that regards Western materialist striving as a fruitless, unspiritual endeavor.
The trees of the forest condemn Tyltyl— the son of a woodcutter— as a murderer destroying the earth (forget what that lumber may have built). Later, Time mocks the self-importance of a child who will one day invent 33 ways to prolong life, praising instead a poet who will pen the saddest poems the world has ever heard.
A child, or a simpleton?
In the penultimate scene, Joy (Anna Sweeny) reintroduces those pleasures we either took for granted or have lost. Maeterlinck's back-to-nature Luddism advises us to forsake civilization's achievements and instead find happiness indulging the pleasure found in snowflakes, walking barefoot through wet grass, and waking up to the sun in our face. With her varying, unstable pitch delivery, Sweeny proves that the inner mind of every mystic belongs not to a child, but to a simpleton.
Ultimately, Bérylune instructs Tyltyl to find happiness in family life, a mother's smile and building a home. So it turns out that Tyltyl had the Bluebird all along. His journey demonstrates that those who discontentedly seek it will never find it, and those who take pleasure in their family life will always have it without knowing because they experience it.
I found Maeterlinck's ennoblement of the family a welcome antidote to his contemporary Freud (who saw the family as the wellspring of all neuroses). But the singular richness of his drama itself disproves his thesis that all life's true pleasures are found within.â—†
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.