As a self-described launching pad for plays, the Source Festival offers writers and artists an opportunity to incubate promising new work, even if scripts exist in but a fledgling state. Such is the case for Steve Yockey’s The Thrush and the Woodpecker, a fascinating new morality play that features elements of greatness despite the opacity that afflicts plays in the early stages of development.
This isn’t to say that audiences should stay away. Rather, DC theatre lovers would be wise to embrace the workshop stages of this play’s growth because there’s obvious richness in Yockey’s talents and enough quality in Director Cara Gabriel’s production to draw attention to the fact that Thrush has the potential to be a gripping juggernaut of a play. It’s just not there yet.
The play opens – or seemingly opens – with mother and son, Brenda (Alison Bauer) and Noah (Alex Alferov), waxing esoteric about the latter’s recent university expulsion. Their impossibly articulate conversation lays out exposition and introduces themes of duty and morality, though their erudite talk doesn’t do much else. Bauer and Alferov navigate well through the text despite not having much to work with in the way of objectives, conflict, or stakes (this is something Yockey will need to fix in the future). For now, the scene serves his purpose in setting a table for when feathers really get flustered.
Enter Róisín (Robin Covington), a walking, talking inciting-incident-and-a-half both enigmatic and unhinged. Her arrival on Noah’s doorstep (Brenda is conveniently away) establishes a new tone for the play and introduces an array of mysterious secrets. That Covington plays the character with general restraint is a questionable choice yet still works to keep the audience wondering who she is.
Eventually, a dark, supernatural history is exposed and two of the characters are identified as the allegorical birds in the title. A moral quandary is revealed and Yockey forces his audience to debate the merits of one character’s actions versus another’s justifications for revenge. This is where Yockey shines. His characters peck, peck, peck at each other in defense of contrary moralities. They fight for themselves as much as they fight against each other. If Thrush’s first 45 minutes represent a play in its adolescence, the final forty show signs of a growing maturity.
The production team supports the work with grade-A technicality and several splendid bits of theatre spectacle. Veronica J. Lancaster’s sound design aptly boosts the sense of dread in Source’s cozy black box space. John Alexander’s lighting always fits the mood and Deb Sivigny’s living room set makes creative use of linen walls doubling as projection screens. Thrush’s projections (designed by Lancaster and animated by Sam Fruzetti) beautifully augment the theatrical experience without ever stealing the show. One particular technical moment near the end of the night is a breathtaking example of the power good designers can wield over a play.
While the actors sometimes convey a lack of connection with their characters, Alferov in particular shines in moments such as the play’s closing monologue. His performance displays a keen grasp of Noah’s powerless frustration and his strong comedic instincts help color the play’s vital moments of levity.
In its current incarnation, The Thrush and the Woodpecker is not unlike a stovetop pot brimming with lush and fascinating ingredients. It may take some work, but Yockey’s on his way to cooking up a captivating piece of drama. He needs only to raise the heat and keep on stirring the pot.
The Thrush and the Woodpecker plays at Source Festival on Thursday, June 19th at 8 PM, and Saturday, June 28th at 1 PM and 8 PM at Source-1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC.