Mildred's Umbrella explores A Murder of Crows
The world is a bleak place in Mac Wellman's hilarious invective A Murder of Crows, now in the hands of Mildred's Umbrella. The apocalyptic tale imagines a landscape ravished by pollution and the empty desires of man. The ocean is "like a big bowl of wiggly custard," "the air's all mustardy" and the rivers "look like bubble baths." As one character says, "No matter where you are, you're always downwind of something peculiar." In this devastation swirls Wellman's strange, whacked-out poetry about the meaning of life, death and ugly Americans.
We first meet Nella (Karen Schlag), a woman who's lost her husband — he somehow ended up headfirst in an "avalanche of radioactive chicken shit" — and is trying to get along without him. Since she also lost her house, she's had to move in with relatives, and now she's stuck with Howard (Tom Vaughan) and his Klan-loving wife Georgia (Amy Warren).
Howard and Georgia are very lucky people, spending their days at the track and always coming back with bags of money, literally. They are everything that's wrong with America. Wearing tight white pants, big hair and gold high-heeled shoes, Georgia is greedy consumption personified. And she's sick and tired of Nella, who's been at her house for six weeks.
Nella by herself wouldn't be so bad, but she's brought along her son (Bobby Haworth), who's come back from Desert Storm as a "public monument," literally a gold statue, that Nella leaves in the garden for "photosynthesis." There's also Nella's wild-child daughter Susannah (Christie Guidry Stryk), who speaks in poetry and hates everyone. "The weather's turning itself inside out," she says, and "It smells like the empty rooms of God." And Raymond (Alan Hall), the dad, has come back from the dead to haunt his daughter, dressed like he's risen from the dump.
And then there are those three black crows (Bobbi-Jo Davis, Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers, Dana Pike) who flock around the house like a new-world Greek chorus, discussing ontology, epistemology and the myriad possibilities of language.
This odd bunch of characters tell an even weirder story, which we can piece together out of the language Wellman uses. He sees Americans like Georgia as having no imagination. She can't say much without a series of hackneyed phrases like "down in the dumps," "not up to snuff" and "crying shame." Her small mind is filled with the day-to-day stuff of "local politics, taxes and the price of oil." She's a racist who loves money and thinks she's better than people who don't have it. And she's got a "rivet" in her head, implying that she's been pieced together out of all the stuff Americans consume.
Susannah, on the other hand, understands history and sees a future that is interesting, if not happy. She believes that people will become "more murderous but much more spiritual." But in this play, "America is not a safe place for people who have ideas." And so Susannah has to decide what she wants to do with herself when her father returns from the dead to tell her about living with the crows.
This is not easy theater. It takes concentration and attention. But the play is filled with odd and bizarre jokes that director Jennifer Decker's cast hits. Schlag's Nella is the voice of reason as a plain-speaking woman who doesn't understand her children. Haworth, as Nella's gold-plated son, is terrific once he steps down off his podium to speak about the devastating "high" of war. Montano-Bowers, as a philosophical crow, makes strange and poetic sense as she runs through the Hegelian limits of knowledge. Vaughan and Warren's Howard and Georgia are wonderfully hateful, though their dialogue could and should be speeded up. Hall's Raymond is paternal and pious, and Stryk makes a beautifully troubled teen.
Rebecca Ayres's set, combined with Mike Mullins's video, with their broken-down porch and its creepy red sky, imagine a world that's been destroyed by unending consumption. This uninterrupted hour of anxiety might be too much for some, but it's quintessential Wellman — who won the 2003 lifetime achievement Obie Award — at his strangest and darkest.
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