Despite over–the–top acting, modest production values, and an almost crippling self–seriousness, Bird Machine remains an engaging piece of experimental theater. Could it be the puppets?
When an emperor (Jo Jo Hristova) holds a competition to see who can give him the best birthday gift, Leo (Carlo Adinolfi) and Vince (Michael Tomlinson) bet each other they’ll be the one to win the potentate’s prize. The first half of Bird Machine follows the friends’ creative processes: Somber Vince builds a beautiful jewel garden, while Leo takes inspiration from the birds and tries to fashion a flying machine. None of the actors do much with their characters, but the characters are not the main event.
The puppets are. Surrounding the actors is a kingdom of puppets—puppet people, puppet birds, puppet buildings, and all sorts of puppet contraptions—handled by a skilled sextet of puppeteers. The troupe manipulates giant wings for Leo, collapses a model town into a desk for Vince, dangles flocks of birds over the stage, and generally dazzles with a parade of toys and illusions. As the two inventors toil, the puppeteers conjures a fairytale world—or at least a shadow world—in which the friends’ story plays out.
Perceiving a threat to his omnipotence in Leo’s attempts at flight, the emperor kills the young inventor on the day of the competition. The play ends with Vince avenging his friend by building a life–sized jewel garden, one to enthrall and trap the emperor—forever! A hall of projection screens and flashing lights, the emperor’s garden is Bird Machine‘s coup–de–grace, as absurd and ungainly as anything else in the play, but somehow evocative of the hidden horrors of an earthly paradise.
This piece about artificial realities never succeeds at masking the artificiality of its own world: Bird Machine is certainly rough around the edges. But it’s also so ambitious, and so immersive despite its limitations, that its crazy allegory about technology, power, and art somehow succeeds. Well, flying machines never seemed possible, either.