Winging It

A labored premise? Theater Mu's sweatshop drama Export Quality

There is a moment in Richard Linklater's film Slacker when two grease monkeys peer at an old Chevrolet. "So you put that 383 bore kit back there, huh?" one asks. "Yeah," the other answers, "I got the pop-up pistons, got the block bored over 30, 400 crankshaft, 400 harmonic balancer--it's practically a big block now."

They go on like that for several minutes, spouting grease-monkey gibberish at each other, before heading over to a junkyard to do what grease monkeys apparently do at junkyards: steal distributors. I mention this because the scene sprang to mind while I watched the husband-and-wife team of William Stiteler and Sharon Koval Stiteler starring in Play on Birds at the Acadia Café. Apparently Koval Stiteler has been an obsessive bird watcher for quite a few years now, and this collection of skits written by her and her husband details the foibles of this particular magnificent obsession, from battles with squirrels to an endless preoccupation with what Stiteler calls "the brown bird"--his catch phrase for the hundreds of nondescript feathered creatures that are distinguishable only by slight flecks on their wings or markings on their stomachs. At the performance I saw, as Koval Stiteler riffed through jokes about various bird seeds--sounding eerily like the aforementioned grease monkeys--her audience laughed frequently. It was the knowing, affectionate laughter of self-recognition.

"Know your audience, and you'll sell out," an employee at the Acadia sagely noted, and indeed the Stitelers enjoyed a nearly full house, most of whom seemed to be bird fanciers themselves. (Before the show, some could be seen gazing intently at a newsletter from the All Seasons Wild Bird Store.) At the beginning of the performance, Koval Stiteler takes the stage wrapped in a pink feather boa and wearing a spangled, feathered Mardi Gras mask; it's the costume of a fowl named Phoebe Mockingbird, an unctuous lounge performer. She tells stories of her miserable life, culminating in smarmy show-business patter and declarations like "I wrote a little song about it, and I'd like to sing it for you now." She then proceeds to whistle out little birdcalls, which draw not just appreciative laughter from her audience, but also applause.

Play on Birds is an odd little performance, which will surprise nobody who regularly attends productions at the Acadia, a coffee shop/theater that seems to specialize in offbeat, small-scale productions. This very drollness works in the avian duo's favor. The Stitelers are an appealing comedy team, young and eager, with the frazzled Mr. Stiteler trailing in bewilderment behind his overzealous wife as she details the complexity of her fixation. Throughout her performance, he looks on in with a mixture of bemusement and embarrassment. "I went to grad school, you know," he tells the audience. "I did my thesis on Shakespeare." But despite his declarations of humiliation, he seems to view his wife's obsession with fond tolerance, just as she seems to understand her hobby as a benign form of madness.

The best moments in their production come from their good-natured kidding of each other, and these come with some frequency. In a strange way, the real drama of Play on Birds lies in these performers' genuine affection for each other. This is a strange way to propel a show, as most productions are driven by conflict rather than comity, but seeing as the Stitelers are already dealing with peculiar subject matter at an unusual venue, their production's sweet-tempered humor easily fills 45 minutes.

This running time is ideal, as well: Any longer and I would have been demanding a more cohesive story, stronger sketches, and better production values. Turns out my capacity to be charmed runs out after 45 minutes.


Where the Stitelers' unpretentious skits seem well-suited to the solstice, Theater Mu's Export Quality is weighted in the opposite direction. Sandra J. Agustin's play proposes to explore Manila's sweatshops, using the phrase export quality to describe not simply the low-priced fabrics produced in Filipino factories, but also the dispossessed people of the Philippines, who export themselves as indentured domestic workers throughout the world.

Unfortunately, where the Stitelers' production is eccentric, Agustin's is simply preposterous. Agustin stars in the play as a Filipina-American buyer for an upscale boutique who is surprised to discover on a business trip to Manila that the garments she has been purchasing have come from sweatshops. This is something like imagining a butcher who, after years in the business, is simply appalled to discover that the sides of meat he has been selling have been cut off the carcasses of dead animals. Export Quality might have been a far more interesting play had Agustin's character been only too aware of the sweatshops, with the script then exploring the emotional effects of this sort of cultural betrayal. As it is, one cannot believe that the play's main character is such a naif. In one sequence, she tours a sweatshop and blithely believes the manager's lies that the building's air conditioning is temporarily missing, and that his employees work brief, comfortable days. This leaves the audience wondering how a character with so little common sense could figure out how to dress herself in the morning--not to mention find the airport.

Despite the essential absurdity of the story, the production has a sort of giddy, high spirit, thanks in no small part to the uptempo direction of Rick Shiomi. For example, Shiomi sets one energetic scene in a discotheque. Amid strobing lights and Ricky Martin songs, actor Allen Malicsi gyrates like a dervish in a prolonged and hilarious dance that has the audience sympathetically gasping for air at its end. This sort of deliberate burst of ridiculousness is always entertaining; it is the accidental absurdities of a play that are so frustrating.

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