Under the lavish fabulism of the Berkeley Rep's Green Bird lies an irony that would confuse Carlo Gozzi. He wrote the play in 1765 as a satire on the Enlightenment, with its rational philosophizing and criticisms of the church. Gozzi was a mandarin who resented upstarts like Voltaire, never mind radicals from Berkeley, but now the Berkeley Rep is mounting an updated version of The Green Bird that borrows part of Gozzi's conservatism to rap the knuckles of a rising tech generation. Some rich young techies richly deserve the satire, of course. But when Gozzi's crude, good-hearted peasant parents are presented as old hippies, ill-treated by their nerdish, Gen-X kids (who grow very rich) — well, times have changed beyond anything even Gozzi could have imagined.
In the 1760s Gozzi wrote satiric fiabes, or fable plays, using ancient folk tales and stock characters from commedia dell'arte. (He was a sort of Italo Calvino of the right.) This production mixes his commedia style with kabuki costumes and puppetry, with mixed results. Dominique Serrand not only directs the show but also plays the court poet Brighella, a marvelous conniver who rises from a sand-pit stage to introduce the story with his Buddha belly showing, tugging at his umbilical cord and emitting strange noises (“Brrrr. Eeegee.”) to remind us he's an eccentric poet; he wears kabuki make- up and silk robes, and carries a paper parasol. His boss, the monstrous Queen Tartagliona, also wears royal Japanese robes, as well as white makeup and long white Yeti hair. She's played by a man, Brian Baumgartner, who bellows like an ox. The kabuki experiment works here, and in several other places, but the style also trims the Green Bird itself down to a spare creature with disappointingly featherless wings.
The complicated plot goes something like this: Queen Tartagliona has hidden her son's wife in a drainpipe. She's also sent her twin grandchildren off to be killed. Her son is King Tartaglia, and his wife Ninetta is the right- ful queen. The royal twins were not actually killed but set floating on a raft by Brighella, the conniving poet. Two peasants have raised them with the names Renzo and Barbarina — brother and sister — and at the time of the play they're precocious nerds on the verge of leaving on that inevitable quest to find their true parents. Helping in this matter is the Green Bird, a mysterious former prince.
The twins' quest involves an enormous white-haired sand snake, a giant statue head with twirling eyes, and a beautiful naked female statue that comes to life. The giant statue head predicts good fortune for the twins but warns them, “The question is whether you'll want what you get.” When Renzo and Barbarina finally find fabulous wealth, they start to act like Bay Area yuppies, but of course money just isn't enough, somehow. They go on questing for something else (represented by the Green Bird).
This basic story works well as a contemporary fable, but suffocates under layers of plot and stylistic games. At some point too much has been loaded onto the stage. You find yourself asking, “Why's the Green Bird Japanese? What does that mean?” when you should be enjoying the show.
The lavishness would be hard to take if it weren't supported by good performances in almost every major role. Serrand's Brighella, the poet, is a masterpiece; Vincent Gracieux also does an outstanding job as the drippingly regal, boyish King Tartaglia. (Serrand and Gracieux both belong to a Minneapolis company called Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which originated this adaptation of the play.) Stacy Ross and Stephen Cartmell are note-perfect vapid yuppies, and their snaggle-toothed, straggle-haired, butt-exposed parents, played by Geoff Hoyle and Sarah Agnew, are an excellent hippie-clown pair. Brian Baumgartner is an appalling Queen Tartagliona (that's a compliment). But there are bland or bad performances, too. The play drags whenever it lingers on Ninetta (half puppet, half Rachelle Mendez) or the Green Bird (Michael Edo Keane), and Robert Ernst plays the statue head pompously, especially when the head speaks from the gaping mouth of the snake.
I like the gist of this Green Bird. The more I mull it over, the better it seems. By steaming away some of Gozzi's archer snobberies, the Berkeley Rep has given the play a clever modern twist. But riding on the back of a reactionary to criticize the emptiness of the New Rich is still weird behavior. Is it necessary? Can't you make fun of tech industry greed in modern terms — that is, using stark plain reason — instead of resorting to the religious fairy tales of a crusty Italian? The Green Bird is a lot of fun; it just needs to be trimmed to its essential poetry. It's still bloated, like the local economy.