With its devised concept, entirely immersive set, and incorporation of multimedia elements galore, Man Covets Bird at Spooky Action Theater marks the most THEE-yah-tah experience for those of us embarking on our mid-COVID return to the arts. But make no mistake, I do not mean to say that Man Covets Bird is inaccessible. In fact, it is beautifully simple, which allows its experimental staging and structure to shine.
Finegan Kruckmeyer’s short and sweet play follows a semi-unnamed character, Man, as he takes a coming-of-age journey through a similarly unnamed city, to finally arrive not only at himself but also at something bigger. Infancy, childhood, and adolescence are breezed through within the first five to ten minutes, so the play arrives at its call to adventure when Man suddenly feels alien to his parents and leaves home to build his own life. As is apparent from the title, he brings with him a new companion, a bird, which his parents cannot see (we too as the audience cannot see the bird). From there, the story feels like a traditional hero’s journey as the man tries to find and share happiness by way of his bird.
Jonathan Feuer (Man) is expressive, but never over the top, fully convincing in every interaction with his bird that we never see. Emily Erickson and Navi (Ensemble) do an excellent job of creating memorable, differentiated faces that show us the emotions of a multitude of nameless characters. Perhaps the most incredible feat accomplished by the players is their ability to oscillate seamlessly between the characters’ emotional involvement and narrators’ warm yet detached objectivity. All three do their best work as these blank slates, disappearing into each role and each moment completely.
Nadir Bey’s set is a marvel, both vivid and muted at the same time. There are constant surprises hidden within it that go unnoticed until they are used. It’s reminiscent of Where’s Waldo with how much it has going on, or a touch-and-feel book with the way it lights up the senses. Occasionally, that richness of effect and sensory elements like music briefly separate the audience from the moment simply because there is so much else going on. But for all of these technical complexities, the individual pieces feel clean and familiar, a fort put together from objects the entire audience knows, making a generally smooth transition from reality to the fantastical. Lighting (Hailey LaRoe), costumes (Danielle Preston), sound and music (Brandon Cook, Navi, Emily Erickson), and projection surprises (Patrick W. Lord, Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor), work together seamlessly to the same effect, engulfing us in the bird’s nest and the man’s world.
Shanara Gabrielle’s phenomenal direction (and, because this is a devised piece, the entire artistic team) indeed seems to want the play to sweep the audience in, make us feel, each in our own way, a part of things. This can be seen in the fact that the play is staged in the round, with spectators entering the stage and the set itself as soon as they walk in, then opting to sit in one of four quadrants. Actors often walk over to these quadrants and make direct eye contact with audience members as they are speaking. In maybe the most moving moment of all, we are engaged directly, offered the chance to listen, and fully fall into the world they’ve created.
As COVID continues to impact our lives, these expressions of community are to be savored all the more. Constructing Man Covets Bird as a wholly collective piece in 2021 feels opportune, redefining the theatrical experience to reflect what we are all going through now, as we decide when to begin coming out of isolation, and how ready we are to share our birds with the people around us. The show does make you ponder this, but most of all, it is engrossing as a world where those problems are less complicated, where walls can light up, and a bird in your pocket can begin a conversation with those you see but ignore every day. Man Covets Bird works best like this: as an impermanent, meaningful escape into a parallel world for a brief time.
If I’m honest, I don’t expect that this is a play I will keep talking about a month from now. Although I found it deeply applicable to this moment, it was not so specific and complex that I will be continuously unpacking it. What I will not forget, though, is how I felt while watching it. The magic of Man Covets Bird is in experiencing it, in 75 minutes where it does not feel so difficult to find ourselves, and come away feeling that much more connected to ourselves and our community.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Man Covets Bird plays through December 19, 2021, performing Thursday through Saturday evenings with a Sunday matinee, at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets (general admission, $30–$40; seniors, $25–$35; students, $20), call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.
COVID Safety: Audience members will show proof of full COVID vaccination before entering the theater. Both audience members and theater staff will wear masks at all times while inside the building.