Birdseed Bundles, Ain Gordon’s new comedy at Dance Theater Workshop, imagines the afterworld as a perpetual reliving of your last hours on earth. Happy are those who leave the world in a carnal embrace, though none of the ghosts visiting Leo Farber (Quentin Maré), a formerly straight, now gay thirtysomething New Yorker, happen to have been so lucky. While his English nana Hillary (Valda Setterfield) passed away brooding in her garden, his Jewish grandma Sadie (Lola Pashalinski) died cooking over a hot stove. Nothing, however, compares to the still smoky young woman who was a casualty of 1911’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. All of Leo’s supernatural encounters take place in an annoyingly orange-colored Vermont motel room, which he’s checked into the night before the wedding of his ex-girlfriend, Dorothy (Babo Harrison)—an experience of a more mundane though equally ghoulish kind.
It may be considered silly nowadays to believe in ghosts, but, as Birdseed Bundles demonstrates, it’s even sillier to think the past simply vanishes, when it determines (via accidents of nature and nurture) who we are. As in his Obie-winning play Wally’s Ghost, Gordon once again tries to puzzle out the riddle of personal history. He’s not so much interested in uncovering raw family data as he is in the pattern of events, the generational mistakes and traumas that exert their pressure from beyond the grave. A keen awareness of the capriciousness of circumstance—and our typically misguided explanations for when things change for the bad—hovers over the action. “Chance is the fool’s name for fate,” Sadie keeps telling her grandson Leo. The play is the geometric proof of her premise.
All of the characters are weighed down with unfinished business. Dorothy, who has invited Leo to the wedding to find out why he dumped her eight years ago, arrives at his door carrying a sack of birdseed and a roll of lavender tulle, to make little bundles for her guests (rice being a health hazard for birds). As she chides him for the way he callously withdrew from her, other characters from his past return from the dead to clear up their own lingering concerns. Hillary still harbors resentment toward her daughter Laila (Tanny McDonald), who left England for America in part to escape her mother’s disapproving, albeit needy, clutches. Sadie, meanwhile, cannot put down the memory of her friend Selma (touchingly played by Mara Stephens), who was tragically killed in the factory fire shortly after helping Sadie get hired there.
The stories, which take a while to coalesce, move fluidly between time periods. With help from director Michael Sexton’s smooth staging, Gordon creates a kind of kaleidoscopic family elegy that’s as sensitive as it is funny. Whether the play ultimately has the resonance of Wally’s Ghost is another question. The characters in Birdseed Bundles seem to belong more to the world of life than art—in other words, they don’t always appear to be fully distilled, their experiences still somewhat clouded with reality’s uncertain vagueness. This is especially true of Leo, who’s basically just a nice guy casually observing, rather than deeply engaging, the bygone dramas surrounding him.
None of this, however, is the fault of Sexton’s talented actors, each of whom cuts as sharp a figure as possible. Setterfield brings a density of dammed-up feeling to her portrayal of Hillary, which is matched perfectly by the harnessed resentment of her daughter, subtly embodied by McDonald. The comic drive of the show, however, comes from Pashalinski’s Sadie, who turns her character’s urban folk wisdom into stringent one-liners. Trundling around in an apron, she can’t help wondering why everyone’s so much nicer now than they were when she was alive back in her kitchen.
The ghost in Candido Tirado’s psychodrama King Without a Castle, currently at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, manifests itself as a shadow on the disturbed mind of Danny (Francisco Lorite), a 25-year-old living with his mother (Anilu Pardo), who’s deluded herself into thinking her son is her dead husband. This is obviously not agreeable to Danny’s pregnant girlfriend (Selenis Leyva), whose suicide attempts are one way of voicing her rancorous disapproval. As the two women stare balefully at each other, Danny concentrates on his chessboard, dreaming of the day he annihilates his Grand Master opponent, who inevitably turns into his absent father.
That all of the characters are so completely unhinged wouldn’t be a problem if Tirado had written the nonnaturalistic, Shepard-esque drama of family pathology he partly succeeds in pulling off. Too bad, then, that the work keeps retreating into a more realistic, kitchen-sink model, tarnished by a few melodramatic touches. Director Michael John Garces’s production, though, has a dusky, percussive elegance that goes a long way toward mitigating the overheated tendencies of the script. His gritty cast lends credibility, if not ultimately sympathy, to a trio of disturbed characters locked in an increasingly violent struggle to bury the clinging past.