by David Koteles · August 15, 2014
There is something transportive about the appealing yet somewhat sinister play The Mormon Bird Play: Sketches for an Allegoric Dream. Roger Benington, the talented writer and director of the play, grew up Mormon and has seemingly taken Mormon themes—of which I am admittedly no expert—and transformed them into a rich, poetic, waggish piece of magic realism featuring a group of Mormon children grappling with issues they’re unable to fully wrap their heads around. These matters include typical childhood rites of passages as well as religious doctrine, the mysteriously ritual nature of their nascent faith, and struggling to understand the difference between sacred and secret. Their natural curiosity is frequently butted by the numerous topics they aren’t allowed to talk about, leaving these children ostensibly weighted down. While some are in happy oblivion, others are left maladjusted or even catatonic by the heavy load they carry. What is sacred and what is secret is a question posed throughout the piece.
Tapping Witold Gombrowicz’s Polish absurdist play Ivona, Princess of Burgundia as inspiration, this play began life as children’s theatre created for and with actual children in Salt Lake City. Its surprising journey didn’t stop there, it continued to evolve and is now performed by a terrific cast of grown men playing little girls. Actually, they play girls, boys and, in a parable within this parable, early pioneer Mormon women trapped in a church play with unexpected themes. The actors don’t wear wigs or makeup, or even shave, and they’re basically young men in short frocks. This cross-dressing conceit could have been camp or mean-spirited in the hands of another director, but here Benington finds a delightful Caryl Churchill-ian way of looking at gender roles and behavior in a surprisingly fresh, emancipating way. The set and costume designs are also by Benington, and he offers just enough to paint the picture; instead relying on his talented and charming ensemble to teeter the line between impersonation and social satire.
The story focuses on the arrival of Ivona, a strange girl who comes to town and is unable, or unwilling, to talk. Besides being mute and almost lifeless, Ivona is darkly obsessed with an injured bird. The new girl becomes a blank canvas onto which each character projects their needs, wants and fears. Ivona and her bird are allegories for… something. One can easily deduce the church, which is pretty central here in the shadows of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. Indeed, the church is steeped into every thought these children articulate. We soon learn that some find beauty in Ivona, while others see ugliness; some are fearful of her and some resent her. While the story includes some pretty terrible events that would scar most people well through adulthood, the play serves to remind us that the gloominess of the world can seem even darker through the eyes of impressionable children.
However, the play is not didactic, and it’s neither anti-Mormon nor homiletic. Mormonism is treated as much as a culture as a religion here, although faith is obviously woven into the fabric of the characters’ lives. While you may surmise some criticism of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which is never actually named in the piece), the real themes this work explores are being different and denial, which are universal and hardly exclusive to any one faith. It seems that it is one thing to be willfully mute, but far worse to be willfully blind. Like most good plays, The Mormon Bird Play offers more questions than answers. And it does so with prodigious imagination and style.