14th Street Y Theater,
Even though a bird watcher enjoys the appearance of common visitors at their feeders every day, the real thrill occurs when an unusual—and most often, unexpected—species stops by on its travels between its summer and winter homes. It's the same feeling we get here at Opplaud™ when we head out to catch what we believe will be another typical off-off-Broadway show but encounter a performance that far exceeds our expectations.
Tonight, playwright Adam Szymkowicz's Rare Birds proved to be that kind of show. Arriving at the 14th Street Y's black box theater to find more than the typical scattering of mismatched furniture suggesting a set, we should have known this would be more than your average budget-conscious production, and it wasn't long after the actors took the stage that we found ourselves sucked into a plot that had us cringing and squirming and flinching—and at just the right moments, laughing to release the tension, only to build it back up again.
Now, you might be wondering: how could a story about bird watching possibly have such an effect? Well, you see, when those blue jays take the stage and start fighting with the orioles over territory and mating privileges—O.K., O.K., the truth is, this story isn't really about bird watching; it's a coming-of-age tale about the cost of being unpopular in high school—and the even greater price that you have to pay to be popular. Evan Wills (Jake Glassman) isn't just a bird watcher; he's a wimpy pacifist who nonetheless refuses to play by the rules. Dylan Cormer (George Colligan) isn't just a bully; he's overcompensating for a secret that he shouldn't, in this day and age, even be keeping. And Jenny Monroe (Joanna Fanizza) is more than just a teenage beauty with a reputation to protect; she has a warm heart that is still too bruised to withstand being hurt again. Evan loves Jenny even though he only knows her from a distance. Dylan hates Evan for reasons Evan can't understand—nor can Dylan's friend Mike (D. Guerra), who nonetheless joins in the bullying because, after all, Mike is just a confused, lonely and frustrated teen, too. And Evan's mother, Janet (Tracey Gilbert), just wants Evan to be normal and get along with her new boyfriend Ralph (Robert Buckwalter)—because puberty isn't the only time humans get lonely and frustrated, you know.
As an adult, it's easy to look back on younger days and dismiss pubescent troubles and feelings as superficial expressions of overactive hormones, but director Scott Ebersold has this talented cast delivering every well-written line with emotion so perfect that you can't help feeling compassion for each and every character's problems. And when the tension reaches its peak and you think you foresee how it's all going to end, Szymkowicz's script throws you a curve that has you asking yourself whether what you just saw is what really would happen—only to convince you moments later that yes, now, it all makes perfect sense.
To be honest, there are a couple of areas that could use just a tiny bit of work: the fighting could be a little more realistic and the action on stage coordinated more tightly with the overhead projections. Nonetheless, feel free to bring your greatest expectations to this production and you will not be disappointed—if you're a birder, it's like visiting Hawk Mountain and sighting a bald eagle, or glancing at your backyard feeder and spotting a Kirtland's warbler!
Original photo by Billy Tompkins.
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