Mac Wellman The Hyacinth Macaw / performed aboard The Queen Mary ship, Long Beach, California / the performance I saw was on March 12, 2011
As the publisher of Mac Wellman's two volume-set of plays Crowtet and other Wellman fictions, plays, and books of poetry, I have grown so used to the praise that most often accompanies his performances and publications that I was a bit shocked by the series of quite negative reviews in the local press for the second of the Crowtet plays, The Hyacinth Macaw, performed recently by the California Repertory Company aboard the Queen Mary ship in Long Beach.
The director, James Martin, has long worked with Wellman, producing one of the best productions, Cellophane, I have ever seen, and overseeing several others, including The Lesser Magoo. Yet here, I am afraid, he has lost some of Wellman's necessarily quick pacing, and by the last scenes the play begins to lag.
I see myself a feckless youth hardened by
prolonged abstinence and chilblains, aghast,
alone, in agony. I see myself, a young shoe-
salesman on the windy plains of West Gradual,
where the Bug River hyphenates the mighty Ohio
with its moxie doodle, a cipher, a tragic hipster,
a tramp. I encounter the notorious Mu Factor
in the sad, shanty towns of Shenango and deem
myself wise with the leer of unholy knowingness.
As in Allen Ginsberg's Howl, there is a sort of self-centered, self-loathing poetry in Ray's speech, a kind of poetic richness that transcends his ordinariness. Wellman's works are filled with these kind of poetic moments, when despite their drab lives, the characters speak out momentarily in a dream of wonderment. Dora gets her turn in the next scene with her daughter:
The time comes when you hear the music
from another world. You know the
music is from another world because
it is so sad and strange you feel
as if you awakened from a dream,
flung your fists out in a nightfever
and caught a living sparrow in your
hand. Only, the bird sings a piercing
wildnote threnody that drives you
unwilling straight to the center of
Actress Lysa Fox in the production on the Queen Mary played this scene nearly perfectly by performing it straight as if she were saying the most ordinary thing she might say day after day. Some of the others in this production simply acted too much, which can kill a Wellman play before it can puff up to its full poetic confection. Or perhaps I should say, they tried too hard. Like Mad Wu's song in the penultimate scene—
I sleep in the woods
all day, all night;
If I don't finish this song
There's no one around
To tell me I'm wrong;
or, worse, that I'm right.
—there must always be a sort of casual insanity about what is spoken in The Hyacinth Macaw. If the actors take the lines too seriously, they destroy both the poetry and the fun.
Los Angeles, March 18, 2011