By John Lyle Belden
True story: In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an area bigger than many countries, there is a vast sea of human-generated garbage. Now, what if a solitary seabird called Nigel, who lived on a remote island off New Zealand (also true), instead occupied a tiny patch of land in those plastic-infested waters?
This sets the stage for “Love Bird,” a play by K.T. Peterson at the Phoenix Theatre. Note that I write “solitary” above rather than “lonely,” as in this fantasy, Nigel (portrayed by Scot Greenwell) constructed a couple of companions from the washed-up flotsam.
Elegant Saundra he adores, and wishes would return his affection. Nigel creates an extravagant nest, and even composes a song for her on his homemade instrument. But also, there’s easygoing Jessica, who likes to hang around in a nearby tree (a shrubbery, she corrects in his head). She’s the kind of friend who is easy to talk to.
“What a world we create for ourselves,” Nigel remarks, with no sense of irony.
He has a ring-pop secreted in a shell-covered box for his true love. The nearby pod of whales converse mainly with each other, so Nigel instead argues with some oncoming storm clouds. Suddenly, another flesh-and-blood seabird appears.
Norman (Bill Simmons) has different plumage, a gregarious personality, and likes to draw in the sand – mostly portraits of eggs. He comes bearing a gift of clothespins. He also seems to have been observing Nigel from afar, which is bothersome.
Concerns are put aside, however, as Nigel sets up a wonderful dinner party for Norman, a double-date with Saundra and Jessica. Eventually, the storm butts in, and changes everything.
The portrayals of these birds (Nigel is a gannet, Norman is unspecified but resembles a brown boobie) are fascinating and highly entertaining. With the help of creative makeup, clownish clothing by Beck Jones, and movement to mimic creatures not used to walking everywhere, what we get is anthropomorphic but not human. Rather than seeing bird costumes revealing the personality within, we observe pure personalities with the hint of an avian exterior.
I wanted to love this play more than I did. There was much affection for Nigel among the audience, partly because Greenwell is just so darn adorable. In fact, it is the stellar talents of both him and Simmons – who provides contrast, tension, and eventually revelation – that elevate this performance above issues I had with the text. The human-relatable metaphors get muddled, as the characters make references both to being birds (“when I was a fledgling”) and being stuck in an office job with a “Karen.” And is it really that necessary for a bird to have a boat?
One obvious point in the play is the ubiquitousness of the garbage, from which Nigel makes his world,* and that Norman is tempted to eat. (This brings on one hilarious literal “gag.”) The fact that it goes without comment should perhaps be distressing to us, as our junk becomes “normal” to the creatures who live there. But in its colorful arrangement by set designer Kyle Ragsdale, and the way Nigel/Greenwell relishes its pieces, it comes across more quaint than invasive.
Directed by Jolene Mentink Moffatt, with the quirky weirdness you often get in plays like this (which has long been a hallmark of the Phoenix), this romantic comedy like no other might not be for everyone. But it is worth a look for its visuals and performances. At the core, it’s just a couple of bird-brains looking for companionship, and we can all relate to that.
One weekend of performances remain, through Feb. 20 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at PhoenixTheatre.org.
(*The trash was not a factor in the life of the real Nigel, as he lived on a relatively clean island with concrete gannets placed by researchers to attract the birds. Poor Nigel was the only taker, making him Internet-famous. The lone but not lonely bird passed away in February 2018, next to his concrete “mate.” Other live gannets have since taken his place on Mana Island, two miles north of New Zealand. [Source: Washington Post])