UR International Theatre Program will open its second show of the season tonight, “The Colonel Bird.” Following October’s “An Absolute Turkey,” one might suspect that the group is rather bird-obsessed, but other than their fowl commonalities, the two shows are nothing alike.
“The Colonel Bird,” written by Hristo Boytchev in 1995, takes place in a decrepit and abandoned mental hospital that is suffering from a lack of resources somewhere in the Balkans — presumably Bulgaria, Boytchev’s native land.
The story follows the transformation of a group of patients as they move from consumption by their clinically diagnosed mental illnesses to a different, subtler mental illness — the inescapability of a militaristic group mentality. This is lead by Colonel Fetisov (senior Stella Kammel), who is first introduced as a mute schizophrenic and then becomes a vocal figure of strength and conviction.
Ironically, it is just this inescapable mindset that ultimately helps everyone literally escape the hospital and chase after their dreams of being a freelance brigade for the United Nations, crossing through Serbia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Germany on their way to Strasbourg, France, the site of the Council of Europe.
This makeshift brigade is comprised of a group with a wide range of mental illnesses that are ultimately put aside in the name of NATO. There is Nina, a deaf woman who thinks she is an actress but is probably suffering from PTSD (senior Jessica Chinelli); Peppa, a former prostitute who is trying to atone for her sins and is convinced she is in a convent (sophomore Grace Interlichia); Matei, who thinks she becomes so small at night that if someone were to step on her she would die (junior Lydia Jimenez); Davud, a man suffering of impotence and constantly threatening to emasculate himself (sophomore Andrew Spitzberg); Kiro, the insatiable kleptomaniac (junior Jacob Goritski) and a morphine-addicted “doctor” who is reluctant to join the cause (junior Melissa Martin). Lurking in the background of many scenes was ax-wielding Patient One (freshman Samay Kapadia), who elicited suspicion as though at any moment he would be the natural explanation for some of the weirder
gaps in the plot, but he lurked on without purpose.
Upon entering the black box theatre in Todd Union, the unconventional set was immediately striking — the stage was placed between two disconnected areas of seating that opposed each other across the set. While this provided the unique feeling that there was barely a fourth wall between actors and audience — the seats were practically in the set, so being in the audience felt like another wing in the hospital — it was also one of the cast’s biggest obstacles.
It’s normally frowned upon for an actor to turn his or her back to the audience because it breaks up a scene’s action and decreases the impact of dialogue, but when the audience is on both sides of the stage, it’s especially hard to avoid this. This eclectic setup could have been an opportunity for inventive body placement or interesting movement around the space but instead became the reason why, on numerous occasions, scenes that could have been major moments for the play ultimately fell flat.
At first, when Fetisov is giving an impassioned speech to her soldiers it seems as though this trap has been avoided. Her back is to the left side of the audience, but the soliders face it so that the effect of her motivational words is reflected in the soldier’s expressions. Then, later, to even the score for each side of the audience, Fetisov and her soldiers switch spots. But the fault in this scene unfortunately came at the most pivotal point —when Fesitov directly reprimands Kiro, neither face is at all visible, entirely closing the audience out from this high-tension exchange.
A similar shortcoming happened later in the production, when Peppa decides to join the army and finally leave her sultry ways behind. To articulate this, she symbolically burns her list of sins that she had been carrying around throughout the show along with her guilt. This should be a powerful moment for this character, but all of the effect is lost on the left side of the audience’s struggle to figure out what she is doing. Her body completely blocked the action and the only thing visible was a brief glow from what was presumably the lighting of a match, a detail completely occluded due to awkward stage placement.
Despite these limitations, the acting from every cast member was incredibly strong. In particular, Martin convincingly painted the picture of a doctor dropped into a dire situation and totally overwhelmed by an utter lack of help and resources, so much so that it was absolutely shocking to find her character a drug addict. She even went a step further and conveyed with complete conviction this alternate side to her character, displaying the desperation and withdrawal symptoms of an addict, which is arguably the harder of the two roles to play.
The individual tics and oddities of each of the supporting characters were also solid contributions to the overall impressive acting, as each performer consistently carried them through from his or her first line until the bow.
The set and costuming were also strengths in this production. Despite the overall odd placement of the stage, the set itself was quite realistic with the dirty floors, rusty beds and crumbling ceiling one might imagine of Rochester’s own abandoned psychiatric hospital. The costumes, interestingly, followed the pattern of the character’s thoughts — when they are first introduced in states of disheveled insanity their clothes were tattered, dirty and fit loosely. As the characters shifted over to their dedication to the brigade, however, they donned military uniforms that slowly became neater and neater as their new mentality settled in deeper. Peppa even traded in her wild blue hair for a neat black bob while Nina put her messy hair into a tight bun.
Ultimately, though, Boytchev’s characters and plot are meant to serve as a satirical commentary on the political state of post-communist Eastern Europe, a time period and emotional state that will be hard for UR audiences to fully relate to. This makes “The Colonel Bird” a bit of an odd choice, despite its reverence in Bulgaria. Although the intricacies of the satire are largely lost in this rendition, stellar acting, on-point costuming and believable set intricacies are all successes of this production.
“The Colonel Bird” will be running from Dec.1 – 4 and Dec. 7 – 10.
Sklar is a member of the class of 2014.