This weekend, Swandive Theatre opens An Outopia for Pigeons, a new absurdist play by Justin Maxwell about the last passenger pigeon on Earth. The Michele Foucault-inspired script is brought to life by Swandive using sustainable theater principals, including an installation-type set made entirely of recycled materials.
Photo and costume design by Lisa Conley
Maxwell first worked with Swandive in 2010 on a play he wrote, Exhausted Paint, the Death of Van Gogh, for the company's Veggie Stock festival. Damon Runnals and his wife, Meaghan DiSciorio, the co-directors of Swandive, were drawn to Maxwell's poetic monologues and absurdist style, and they asked him to write another work -- without giving any stipulation about what the piece would be about.
Outopia for Pigeons was workshopped in 2011 and 2012. The title takes a phrase from French philosopher Foucault, who defined "outopia" as a non place. In the play, there's a bird named Martha Washington, the world's last passenger pigeon, who, holed up in a Cincinnati zoo, decides she must save her species by creating a nothing place to hide all the other passenger pigeons.
The other characters in the show -- including Charles Bronson (Kevin McLaughlin), a sperm whale out for revenge; puritanical minister Cotton Mather (Bryan Grosso); and the Gourmand (Kathryn Fumie), who is a figment of Martha's imagination -- all bring out the passenger pigeon's dark side, and push Martha to accept her fate.
Photo and costume Design by Lisa Conley
Ultimately, the play is about "change and acceptance and salvation," says Runnals. A very intellectual work, it also has a lot of heart.
Of course, having characters who aren't human always poses a great challenge for actors. In this production, Runnals "didn't want someone to just be a bird." Instead, Adelin Phelps, who plays Martha Washington, makes birdlike movements, but keeps the character human. "It's more subtle," Runnals says. "It's not a movement piece. There's a lot of subtle character work."
One interesting aspect of the production is that the company has taken steps to create a smaller ecological footprint. This is in line with some of the ideas presented at the Sustainability in Theater conference, put on by the Minnesota Theater Alliance. The majority of the show's props, designed by Seán McArdle, are found objects, heirlooms, and so forth. "All the objects we either borrowed, traded, or found," says Runnals. Even the paint was found paint. "It feels like an art installation," he says.
IF YOU GO:
An Outopia for Pigeons
7:30 p.m. November 9-22
A preview on Friday, November 8 is followed by a talkback with the playwright
Cedar Riverside People's Center
See here for tickets
People are invited to walk onto the stage after the show