What The Sparrow Said
nytheatre.com review by Aimee Todoroff
August 17, 2011
On the surface, the plot line of What the Sparrow Said is fairly straightforward. In a hospital room in Los Angeles, Blaze sits by his mother’s side, doting on her as she lies dying. On the opposite coast, in NYC, Blaze’s estranged brother Daniel is considering signing the papers to take ownership of a swank apartment left to him by an admirer he barely knew. The situation is immediately emotionally charged, and we know that starting from this place, dramatic action must be taken. What makes this production really interesting, and what elevates it beyond standard fare, is the intricate way in which the connections between characters and coasts are drawn together by blending direct address, non-traditional staging, elements of poetry and incredible detail to create a story that is as complicated as a human life.
Danny Mitarotondo’s script is made up of three sections, each showing us a moment in time affecting the members of the family. In the first section, the action is taking place in two separate locations but the scenes are played simultaneously. The actors in each scene criss-cross into each others space, and sometimes the dialogue overlaps to the point where the conversations converge into a multi-layered call and response, giving each line double and triple meaning. By blurring the lines between the two scenes, director Jenna Worsham creates moments that are both visually dynamic and enhance the depth of the text. While the second and third vignettes are more structurally traditional, the themes and language are just as complex, and Jenna Worsham’s direction never fails to illuminate the action in ways that are clear and inventive.
Each of the actors brings a performance that is fully committed, with the two brothers playing their opposite natures especially well. As Blaze, Kevin Mannering stays true to his character’s name, tearing across the stage with a frenetic, almost manic openness. On the other end of the spectrum, Matthew Michael Hurley portrays Dan with a careful hesitancy that hints at the repressed passion underneath. Both handle the tricky language and intense monologues well. Mannering deserves extra notice for bearing much of the linguistic burden and for his honest, deliberate pacing when a less confident performer might have rushed. Each of the other actors play multiple roles, a choice that is usually made out of economy, but in this case, reinforces the complicated natures of the relationships that they develop.
There are some funny moments, but the vastness of its themes makes this a heady, contemplative piece. It seems like one of the goals of this production is to be, if not lifelike, then to be as true to the experience of being alive as possible. Intentionally, events sometime happen without much explanation, people come and go, thoughts wander, and things occur that we don’t necessarily understand. The audience members are asked to either fill in a meaning of their own or are left to wonder. At times, the complex structure of the play can be fatiguing, though the gorgeously staged ending is a satisfying payoff. Those interested in an inventive, challenging piece of theatre will find a lot here to digest, and everyone should be looking out for what this innovative theatre company, The Common Tongue, produces in the future.