Starling Murmuration – Put a Bird On It

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Oh, I really do love me some basement theater.  When I ran in out of the rain into the Man Alive Treatment Center and had to descend down a chilly, cement-blocked stairway to get to the Starling Murmuration playing space, I thought “Yeah, this is it.”  To be clear:  I in no way mean to use “basement theater” as a pejorative.  I mean theater that is less “small” than it is “found”.  I love the roughness of it, the way that you can see all the fingerprints.  I love the costumes, the “God, I hope I get it” leggings, the confinement, the realness.  I fucking love it because you can’t bullshit in a production like that (well, you can, but it’s harder to get away with).  If you’re a bad actor, I’m going to be able to tell.  If the themes are mushy, it’s all laid out.  Nothing to hide behind.  Luckily, this show doesn’t need any shielding.  Murmuration, the thesis project of driving force Deirdre McAllister, is well-done and, at times, even profound.  The show was devised by the cast and it feel like that, very personal.  Nina, The Anti-Hero, (Dani Liggens) wanders through a dim world populated by anthropomorphic depictions of different aspects of addition, all of whom interact with her in slightly sinister ways.  We meet Denial, as portrayed by the washed-up, pink-coated diva Viva La Birdie St. Claire the First (Chloe Mikala), singing her heart out and refusing the fact that everyone around her hates her.  There’s Trixie (Sadie Lockhart), a brightly costumed clown on a bouncy ball, who is Pink Cloud, a rare state where the addicted person gets clean and tries to proselytize to everyone else, only to be disappointed in the end.  There’s Lenny (Alex Shade), the Nightmare, who has a Clockwork Orange vibe and tells you everything is dead and dying and you are all alone.  And more, lots more.  This idea, to personify a mental illness, isn’t exactly new, therapists do it all the time to help you visualize the addiction or disorder as something separate from “the real you”.  But where McAllister’s work shines is in the deeper, more poignant theme:  that, as an addict, those around you, even those with the best of intentions, might well attempt to appropriate your story for their own.  And that fucking sucks.  There’s this feeling that you are their failure or their success, but you are never yours.  Because the addict is perceived as dirty, as out-of-control, as less-than-human, they are also seen as a sideshow, something to watch from afar, horrified, until you can turn away and go back to your Vitamix and your Stairmaster.  This perspective does seem original because it isn’t something that’s talked about very much because it makes people uncomfortable because I think we all do it much more than we want to admit.  How much of our help to troubled individuals is about them?  How much is about ourselves?  I think Starling Murmuration should be required watching for any mental health professional, the message is that important.  I wish, though, that the play trusted us enough not to have to spell it out in neon lights at the end.  For all of the scathing talk of “redemptive story arcs” it kind of seemed like McAllister fell victim to the need for that very thing as Nina moves into the arms of Claude (Andre Washington) meant to represent Hope and Support.  It’s not that that ending isn’t valid, but I was hoping that the she would push it a little further toward the direction of “not everyone makes it out okay and that is their story to tell”.  The cast is powerful and confident and I can see how hard they are trying.  Their choices are crystal clear and actualized to notable extent.  They (especially Christy Czjkowski, Andre Washington, Mikala and Lockhart) know how to lighten the mood without losing the meaning.  Lexi Hauck communicates genuine childhood joy with just a hint of a dark edge as Awakening and Withdrawal that was deftly done.  And Madeleine Smith has a scene-stealing moment near the end that she just nails the timing on.  There are extended dance sequences (choreography by Deirdre McAllister and Alex Shade) that, for another kind of group, would have been disastrous and probably looked tragic, but, since these actors emote as well with their bodies as they do with their mouth-holes, end up really working.   I loved the spare musical elements (music by Deirdre McAllister, Madeleine Smith and Trustina Sabah) that are juuuust enough.  Lighting Design by Eric Bowers is actually kind of breathtaking, something I didn’t exactly expect.  Bowers uses flashlights and silhouettes and bright pops of color.  He’s bold, he doesn’t mind throwing you into blinding whites or thrusting you into complete darkness.  Fab.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  Starling Murmuration is a thoughtful, well-executed piece.  It’s brave and strong, presenting us with a needed reminder that it’s not all about you, hon.  You might be a guest star on some else’s Very Special Episode but they are still the headliner, something it is not okay to forget.  McAllister leads her team to a victory, here, one that feels earned and excellent.  See it, if you can.

Running at Man Alive Treatment Center until March 29th


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