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When Bower Bird opens with a clip from a National Geographic-like documentary on the North American sage-grouse, the audience can’t help but titter. Male greater sage-grouses are best-known for inflating and thrusting two large air sacs on their chest to make sound. While bird mating rituals like this become a constant source of humor in Bower Bird, playwright Emily Mayer also interprets them as a social commentary in this Cannonball Festival entry.
As humans, we use our bodies to attract partners, though it is in the way we dress or present our bodies rather than inflating air sacs. Mayer and Tyler Rivera (non-binary performers also known as drag personas Edith Poussard and Oktober Third, respectively) use this nature documentary approach and their drag performance flair to tease out these ideas of gender and sexual presentation.
While we learn of many complex bird courtship behaviors, this performance borrows its name from the bowerbird, native to New Guinea and Australia. Bowerbirds construct decorated structures using grass, twigs, and bright objects from the environment to attract a mate. Mayer transforms into a bowerbird, taking on the architectural prowess of the bird in their deft construction of this show. They lead lip-synced dances to Katy Perry’s “Peacock” and The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” while Rivera mimics the male orange-flame bowerbird to impress an audience member. Mayer’s excellent costuming evokes the prettiness of bird plumage in a sexy leotard, while still allowing the performers to vogue across the studio floor.
The performance also features periodic video clips, spliced from various bird videos and movies, with commentary on how strangely beautiful and intricate these elaborate performances of affection are. The performers draw attention to similar constructions—the physicality we use to show off our bodies, the peacocking display we see on both the well-known bird and men, the sultry 19th-century bustle and the 21st-century butt lift, our choices in outfit and makeup to make a statement. The humorous takes never lose their social commentary, and vice versa.
The multitude of media references culminate in a fascinatingly hilarious documentary of Mayer and Rivera’s bird drag personas rummaging through Philly AIDS Thrift, noting how one bird’s trash may be another bird’s treasured look. Will the outfits impress a potential mate, communicate gender expression, convey the wearer’s social standing, or do something else entirely?
This bird-clown extravaganza will be sure to delight you and your friends, and have you dancing your way through your next nature documentary binge.
What, When, Where
Bower Bird. Created and directed by Emily Mayer. $20. Through September 26, 2022 at the MAAS Building Studio, 1320 N 5th Street. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required to enter. Masks are required in all indoor spaces.
The MAAS Building studio is accessible only by stairs, and the cobblestone entrance may be difficult for some to navigate. Audience participation in the performance is optional.
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