By Caryl Churchill
Directed by John Green & Melli Hoppe
Butler University Theater
As often happens at a Butler University Theater play, the action is already in progress as you find your seat. In this instance, a center stage video screen displays close-up images of a parade of faces as a voiceover narrator delivers news stories of suicide, murder, insanity, the most heinous crimes imaginable. Welcome to A Mouth Full of Birds.
The play begins as the lights fade up on what appears to be an industrial-style dance club, complete with platforms and ladders and what must be one of the most visionary backdrops in my theater-going experience: a giant scrim comprised of 2,000 empty bottles of wine.
The actors dance, move in sync, deliver small scenes of dialogue and action that don’t seem to be connected to each other in any lineal way. In fact, Mouth Full is a series of fractal moments, as if what we’re seeing is the point of view of the birds in the play’s title as they alight on a window sill or a telephone wire, overhearing the human vignettes they’ve randomly come upon.
There’s no traditional storytelling vectors, no typical character conversions. Lines of dialogue are at once so familiar and odd that they hang in the air, impossible to dislodge: “Look at the hole in its stomach,” says one character. “Soak the prunes,” says another. The images and tableaux the actors form have the arresting quality of a Max Ernst collage — or a front row seat at a Star of Indiana performance.
Envisioned by directors John Green and Melli Hoppe, Mouth Full is a portal into pain, ably realized by the cast of 11 actors. Drew Wiskowski is the androgynous Dionysus whose wicked grin is juxtaposed with an achingly gentle demeanor. Jim Senti’s portrayals of a number of characters display a great spectrum of talents, including a hilarious portrait of pig. Jonah Winston, Jason Ober and Andrea Hillsamer are also strong.
For me, the play climaxed with the construction of a giant puppet, a symbol for the out-of-control appetites that ultimately link the disparate stories on stage. I understand that a third act, even in this unconventional play, had to ensue, but I would have preferred a more precipitous drop in its bell-curve narrative structure.
If my mind ever wandered, though, I could marvel at the tapestry of bottles, a customary example of brilliance from scene designer Madeleine Sobota. And, after witnessing all the pain and suffering and insanity on stage, I was surely ready for a drink.