I’ll be honest, when I walked into “Slow Falling Bird,” I did so with low expectations and fingertips itching faintly at the promise of a snarky review later. Said play’s script demands a spectral unborn child who lives atop a basketball hoop, two human cast members somehow dressed as crows (to narrate the action, because why not make them crows, right?), lots of singing, and an underlying plot line about the maltreatment of refugees seeking asylum in cruel Australian detention centers. Did I mention that all of this is expected from a cast of student performers still working to cut their teeth on a college stage?
“Slow Falling Bird” places a cast of 9 in the Woomera Immigration Detention center, South Australia, described as “at once a real place; and a place inside a desert of the mind.” While initially Woomera and inhabitants seem as dry as their desert surroundings, the play chronicles a slow descent into madness that leaves only 3 characters unscathed.
The show mostly revolves around Rick (Peter Walsh) and Micko (Connor Bullock), a pair of guards who share lots of stagetime, but not much else in common. Walsh’s masterfully menacing (albeit initially unassuming) Rick LOVES the town in which he’s born and raised, and his wife, and his job — although by mid-play its clear he actually hates living in the desert with a wife who won’t touch him, and mostly just loves his job because he’s a secret psychopath looking for any/every excuse to knock some refugee heads in. Then there’s Bullock’s constantly wide-eyed and hapless Micko, whose half-Aboriginal blood lends him some sympathy for Rick’s helpless victims …just not enough to stop Hurricane Rick before things completely spiral out of control.
Zahrah (Diana Kalaji), and siblings Mahmoud (Matt Morishige) and Leyla (Cecilia Shaw) are Rick’s unwitting victims, refugees from the Middle East desperate for asylum but doomed by stringent immigration policies. Because they didn’t all immediately announce their intent to seek asylum during their processing at the immigration centre– not the most fair rule given that they all probably speak a collective twenty words of English –they’re stranded in Woomera. Their harsh treatment by Rick, entailing abuse both physical and psychological and coupled with some questionable sexual advances towards Zahrah, drains the hope from each and every character left in a saddening, sickening and sobering way. In any case, it’s all an unexpected and incredibly poignant reflection of the poor treatment of refugees plaguing the Western world and all its for-profit detainee camps.
Perhaps the most genius aspect of “Slow Falling Bird” is the underlying current of madness plaguing the play. From the fanciful, artfully sparse, sunset-coloured desert set (with complementary hints of blue prison cells, beautiful if frustratingly unrealistic), to the occasional flashes of Rick and Micko partying in a strobe-light illuminated bar, to the use of refugee characters appearing as sexy leather-clad pole dancers several minutes after they’ve suffered emotional breakdowns in prison cells, there’s an Alice In Wonderland-esque disorientation constantly keeping the audience a little unsettled. One minute: heavy emotional gravitas, the next: karaoke songs and wise-cracks and everything feeling generally ok. Then someone ends up dead. Beyond being a witty representation of how mad life can truly be (sometimes in a fun way, often in a terrifying way), the occasional dark humor and singing breaks keep the play accessible, enjoyable, and from ever completely crossing over into disturbing territory.
The real star of the show, and also the ringleader of all mad events, was Fish Child (Sienna Williams), the ethereal wild child so violently opposed to being born that she would tug at her own umbilical cord. Yes, that is a scene in “Slow Falling Bird”, and no it’s not physically or anatomically accurate, but it is both quite funny and exponentially more powerful than you’re envisioning. It’s worth noting that Director Roberto Varea once asserted he “still would have chosen [Williams] to play Fish Child,” were he directing the play for Broadway. Whether Williams’ performance is truly Broadway brilliance remains to be seen by far greater critics than I, but I can concretely say that she saved Fish Child from becoming the tacky caricature one would expect from a character who writhes atop a basketball hoop and babbles in childlike incomprehensibility with true charm, stage presence, and a voice so lovely I wouldn’t mind finding it dropped into my iTunes library a la that one U2 album.
Overall, “Slow Falling Bird” was an enjoyable, disorienting production that was aesthetically pleasing, emotionally satisfying (I wouldn’t classify the ending as terribly happy, but it was satisfying and you won’t have seen it all coming), and brought to life by stunningly talented student performers. Even smaller characters like Joy (Alexandra Shiras), Rick’s “pretty in a shampoo-ad” wife, and the odd crow/human hybrid narrators Mortein (Maija Rivenburg) and Baygon (Sarah Ashley) were played with depth and skill. Shiras’ barely Xanax-ed Joy is tensely neurotic but pleasant, even easy to sympathize with. Rivenburg and Ashley are lovely comedic relief with great chemistry, also eerie and ominous when the time comes for them to foreshadow dark happenings in Woomera.
There are no drastic stumbling blocks in “Slow Falling” Bird that I can recall, save for Walsh’s wishy-washy Australian accent– small potatoes compared to his fair acting chops. The entire cast was bright, enthusiastic, invested in their characters and all equally essential to keeping a complex show well-oiled.
If these USF Performing Arts and Social Justice students exemplify the future of theatre, I’d count the medium in good hands.
3 stars out of 4.
“Slow Falling Bird” was part of the PASJ Mainstage Series
A play by Christine Evans
Directed by Roberto Varea
Ran Oct 17th, 18th, 19th, 23rd, 24th and 25th
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