March 4, 2019
Ed Tapper READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Written in 1978, author William Wharton's first full-length novel, "Birdy," enjoyed sufficient popularity to be transformed into a Hollywood motion picture. In the 1984 film version, the title role of Birdy, a young, obsessive bird-fancier, is played by Matthew Modine. Nicolas Cage portrays Al Columbato, Birdy's next-door neighbor, and only close friend.
The film version was updated to the Vietnam era, while the original story was set during WW II. It chronicles the complex friendship between the troubled youths, Birdy who wishes to escape reality by transforming into a bird, and Al, who assists his friend in his flying experiments, while seeking refuge in their friendship. Coming of age, and enlisting in the army, the friends sustain physical and mental wartime injuries that permanently alter their relationship.
Poet Naomi Wallace adapted "Birdy" for the stage in 1997. The dramatis personae for her version consists solely of the two friends, as both adolescents and young men, and the doctor and nurse at the military hospital where Birdy and Al are being treated. Though the play is performed by only six actors, other significant characters from the book are cleverly woven into the script. At its best, Wallace's play deftly dovetails and interrelates the childhood and wartime experiences of the pair by using the four actors to meld together the past and present.
However, the dialogue is often obtuse, and at times jarringly scatological. As the script so strongly focuses on Birdy's obsession with birds, the main characters are not sufficiently fleshed out as three-dimensional characters to engender a full understanding of their dilemmas, or any real sympathy from an audience. Although, in the second act, the story does become more cohesive and engaging.
Equally frustrating, the gay angle between the two young men is strongly intimated, but never fully explored, or even mentioned; nor is there any clear resolution to the story at the end. The play does succeed in integrating comic and dramatic moments, the gamut ranging from the hilarious Act 1 pantomime of Birdy's ill-fated prom date, to Al's desperate monologue in Act 2 in which he struggles to wrest Birdy from the catatonic state into which his friend has descended.
The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production currently playing at Babson College truly allows "Birdy" to soar. The fine direction of Steven Maler consistently maintains visual interest, and succeeds in juxtaposing the two levels of reality, the experiences of Birdy and Al as children and as young men. The action is set before a wonderfully fanciful, multi-tiered set designed by Clint Ramos, on which the boys enact their avian pursuits.
Spencer Hamp was ideally cast for the key role of Young Birdy, and gave a magical interpretation of the brainy, but troubled hero. His energetic and passionate reading was the mainstay of the performance. As Young Al, Maxim Churnov was the ideal foil, and his physical beauty made him a believable object of Birdy's affection, at moments as more than just a friend. Keith White's fine, resonant voice served him well as the adult Al. His restrained performance suggested the inner torments of the character. In a mute role, Will Taylor had to convey the thoughts and feelings of the afflicted adult Birdy through mime and movement. It was clear that he has worked as a choreographer, as he was quite convincing, performing the entire role while curled up on the floor of the stage. The minor roles of the nurse Renaldi and Dr. White were expertly handled by Damon Singletary and Steven Barkhimer,
Fans of the book and the film will be well-acquainted with the characters and the general tone of "Birdy," and are certain to appreciate the play. Those unfamiliar with the story will still find much to enjoy in this quirky tale of a unique friendship, enlivened through the laudable efforts of a talented, committed cast.
"Birdy" continues through March 17 at the Babson College Carling-Sorenson Theater, 19 Babson College Drive, Wellesley, MA. For more information, visit the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company website.