Talking with Director Steven Maler on Making CSC's 'Birdy' Take Flight

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday February 22, 2019

Steven Maler, the artistic director of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, just finished one major project — an innovative look at "Hamlet" as a virtual reality experience that was profiled in the New York Times — before taking on a new one: directing a production of "Birdy," Naomi Wallace's adaptation of William Wharton's 1980 novel.

The CSC's production of "Birdy" runs February 27 through March 17 at the Carling-Sorenson Theater, Babson College, Wellesley, MA. For more information, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company website.

"Birdy" is best-known through its 1984 film adaptation by Alan Parker that helped launch the careers of Matthew Modine and Nicholas Cage, but Parker and his team transposed this story of the unusual friendship between two war veterans from World War II to Vietnam era. For the play, Wallace returned to the play's timeframe, presenting the friendship between childhood buddies Birdy and Al in the days just before WWII and when they return from the war.

At the heart of the play is the story of their unusual friendship, which takes them from the working class Philadelphia neighborhood they grew up in to a hospital in Kentucky where they are both recovering from their war injuries. Birdy, though, refuses to speak; he also has had a long and unusual relationship with birds, even thinking that he can fly.

EDGE spoke to Maler about what attracted him to the play, the nature of the relationship between the two lead characters and what he would like to see on the Common some summer in addition to Shakespeare. (Hint: it features a score by Cole Porter.)

Huge fan

EDGE: Why did you want to direct this play?

Steven Maler: I have known of this play for many, many years, but I don't think I had ever read it. I knew Naomi's work because way back in the day at the American Repertory Theater I had shared her work with Bob Brustein and the artistic team at ART and we ended up doing one of her early plays. And so I was a huge fan of her work, and had heard of "Birdy," but never actually read it. When (Boston-based producer) Spring Sirkin asked if I would be interested in the play, I read it. I had seen the movie as a kid but had never read the play. So for me it was exciting to work on a play by someone who I have admired for so long.

EDGE: Has Naomi been involved in this production?

Steven Maler:Very much so. She was here with us for the first two days of rehearsal. And she was with us for the final days of the casting as well. She has actually rewritten the play for this iteration. The ending has been substantially rewritten, and other bits and pieces along the way. She has been very involved and will be coming back for some performances once we get it up on its feet.

Recovery through friendship

EDGE: What was it about this play that resonates with you?

Steven Maler: I think it is about the strength and the power of the relationship between these young men — the depth of that relationship that brings them both back. It saves them. I think they are both broken by their experiences in the war in different ways. Birdy is shattered mentally by what he experienced. Al is physically damaged, for sure, but also deeply emotionally scarred by his experiences in the war. It is the power of their friendship that brings them back and heals them, really. I think that is the power. It is a love story in a way. They do not have a sexual relationship, per se, but it is a relationship of such depth that it transcends the pain that they are both suffering and helps heal them from the horrors of war that they have experienced.

Technically, I find it a beautiful adaptation of a sprawling narrative that is the novel. The leanness of the adaptation is really admirable and smart, which involves having four actors play these two young men. One pair plays them before they go to war and a second plays them when they return from the war, and in telling their story Naomi employs a storytelling technique is very kaleidoscopic; in doing so, Naomi creates this rich, complex picture of these two young men. These fragments of their lives are woven into this really extraordinary mosaic. And is very challenging from an acting and directing point of view, but that is very much what attracted me to it.

EDGE: Just knowing the story from the Alan Parker film, I was surprised that the play takes place not during the Vietnam era, but before and doing World War II. Did that surprise you as well?

Steven Maler: The William Wharton novel is set in WWII, but the Alan Parker film adapts the narrative to post Vietnam. Naomi went back and reconnected it to the World War II experience. I admire the film and I understood the impulse to transpose the narrative forward to Vietnam, but I think the power of the novel and the power of the play is that it embodies Wharton's very strong pacifist motivation. I think he is really trying put into focus the damage that is done, the carnage that is done to young men who are caught up in any war. What I have come to feel about the Vietnam vs. WWII is that — and this is complicated and I don't know how to distill this down — we all recognize Vietnam as a flawed war in so many ways. But with WWII we think of it as the great war — the defeat of evil, the crushing of the Nazi machinery.

There is a lot of heroism and glory around WWII, but I think that contrast between the romanticism of WWII and the stark realities of what happened are what make both the novel and play so interesting. It is like what that opening sequence of "Saving Private Ryan" did. In a very guttural and tangible way that film graphically presented the destruction that was happening — the bodies being ripped apart. I think that the contrast between this nostalgic notion of World War II and the reality of war's carnage is put more in focus by keeping the play in the time period in which Wharton wrote the novel.

Putting their relationship in a box

EDGE: So while this war is a morally "correct" one and necessary, it is still took a great physical and emotional toll....

Steven Maler: I am not saying that World War II should not have happened, and I don't think Naomi or Wharton feel that way; but we have to understand that as we unleash these things, particularly as war becomes more anesthetized, we are glorifying it. We are not seeing the carnage of a human body being blown apart by a bomb; and also the emotional carnage that takes generations to heal. I think that is something that is a very important impulse in the play to say that we have to be mindful and cautious as we think about the capabilities we have are and how we use them.

EDGE: In a New York Times profile in the 1990s, it was said that most striking element in Wallace's work is the use she makes of the erotica. Are there erotic elements in "Birdy?" I know many of the reviews cite a homoerotic element, and isn't the doctor say that there is some sort of homoerotic relationship between the two men?

Steven Maler: People around the Birdy-Howell relationship are obsessed with it. They are trying to put a label on it so they can categorize it and put it in a box to understand it. I think what is interesting about the relationship is that it is the deepest and most profound relationship that these two men have. So there is an obsession of the part of the doctor as to whether or not their relationship is sexual. But that same character, Al, also asks if it even matters. I think what is interesting is that Naomi doesn't answer that question for you. She doesn't show the men waking up in bed together, but she shows them in these incredibly intimate moments. And you come away from the play thinking that relationship is something you cannot put a label on. It is a relationship of such totality and intimacy that people don't understand it.

I don't know if this is an American thing, but I feel like the fluidity and the intimacy between men seen in other parts of the world is something we don't allow men in this country. We have to label that intimacy; and, for the most part, calling it in a pejorative way. I think this piece allows these two young men to have this very complex, nuanced relationship that is very symbiotic and intertwined. I don't want to answer the question as to whether they have sex or not because I feel like it is a question for anyone who sees the play should answer themselves. I have a personal opinion about it, but also feel that it doesn't matter. It is such a profound relationship that is the most important one that they have in their lives and it is the power of the relationship that offers them the power to heal after what they experienced in war.

EDGE: What was the casting experience like?

Steven Maler: Wonderful and exhaustive. It is so difficult to find young actors who have all of the skill set that a play like this demands. One of the things that is essential about the play is that these are working-class young men. They grow up in a hardscrabble environment of poverty, of family violence, of abuse. I knew that authenticity of roughness and rawness was going to be an essential component for us to capture. I really wanted to find young men who really had that kind of authenticity and be able to live in these characters without commenting on them or condescending to them. It is a very, very important part of our approach to our production. These characters are incredibly smart, they're great storytellers, very creative; they use language that is very rich. I don't want to use the word poetic, but it is poetic; but they don't think of it as poetry.

And you need to find actors that can carry that kind-of sculpted, crafted language that is not unlike working with Shakespeare. You need actors that have that authenticity and presence that is so important. And they need to be pretty fearless. The play contains very bold and challenging situations, so the fearlessness of the actors is very important to me. Obviously with a character like Birdy, who doesn't utter a word the entire play, the ability of storytelling using one body's is extremely important. Also, the cinematic approach to the playwriting with its fragmented themes is very challenging. And another challenge was to match up those younger selves with their older selves. So it was an enormously challenging casting process to find the right actors.

EDGE: You have "Cymbeline" scheduled for this summer on the Boston Common. But have you thought of not doing a Shakespeare play?

Steven Maler:We have announced that this summer is "Cymbeline" which Fred Sullivan is directing. But in terms of summer, I do feel like I would love for us to do a big Shakespeare like we do and pair it with "Kiss Me, Kate." Something big and bold and musical. I think that would be such a wonderful way to experience summer in Boston, but sadly the resources are just not there. We work very hard all year long to raise the money for that project and it is never easy. It is never easy. I don't know if it is just a Boston thing or a US thing, but it seems that given the impact that we make, the numbers that see the production and the artistic excellence of what we do, I always feels like the fundraising should be much easier than it is. But it is not. So until we have the ability to sustain a second production, it will be foolish for us to even attempt us because we would strain our resources and imperil the company.

That's the problem about running a non-profit in that if you misstep on one thing, you imperil the company's ability to move forward. We are all working with such tight resources. It makes it hard to do big, bold things, like the virtual reality project, unless you have exogenous funding that just wants to do that. Google was interesting in exploring that with us, we were able to raise some money as well; it is a little frustrating that I have to fly to the other side of the country to find a partner to do something big and bold like the VR project when there is so much opportunity and wealth in our own community. But the VR project was a really interesting project to be involved in. We have been working on it for a couple of years now, but it is finally nice to have it out in the world. It has been a big one, and a fun one.

"Birdy" runs February 27 - March 17 at the Carling-Sorenson Theater, Babson College, Wellesley, MA. For more information, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].