To describe something extraordinary, we use words like "wonderful," "fantastic" and "marvelous" But we seldom mean them literally.
With Julie Taymor's production of "The Green Bird," however, we enter a world where these words can be used both with their original meanings and as well-deserved expressions of praise. Fantasies, marvels and wonders are the stuff of Carlo Gozzi's play, written in Venice in 1765. And they are Taymor's natural element.
In the last few years, we've seen Taymor make magical theater from a Disney cartoon with "The Lion King." But we've also seen her love of visual devices distract badly from a serious play in her Shakespeare movie "Titus Andronicus." In one, her rich inventiveness swept away the flaws in banal material. In the other, it overwhelmed a weighty work.
With "The Green Bird," there's a happy medium.
The text she's working with is no great classic, but it's good enough to serve as the basis for her astonishing fusion of music, masks, puppets and actors. The play is basically a fairy tale with all the usual elements of romantic fantasy. The king's evil mother banishes his wife to a dungeon while he's away at war. Instead of killing their twin children, though, a servant throws them in the river. They're rescued by a sausage-seller and his wife.
And if you don't know the rest, this really isn't your kind of show.
But if "The Green Bird" is a fairy tale, it's the kind that people actually told in Gozzi's time - bawdy and funny. So, instead of the breathtaking beauty of "The Lion King," we get broad, bold images, hilarious burlesque and a salty sendup of fairy-tale cliches.
Taymor turns the castle dungeon into a row of toilets. The sausage-seller's stall is decorated with fleshy pinups. And she mirrors Gozzi's mixture of the fantastical and the down-to-earth with characters who are, by turns, surreal and real.
At one level, she uses all her tricks to bring to life such unlikely creatures as the Singing Apples and the Dancing Waters. At another, she brings Gozzi's characters home to New York. The sausage-sellers are pure Brooklyn. The king is a Woody Allen neurotic in search of an analyst. The sorcerer who's in league with the wicked grandmother is a rapping Rasta. The princess is any one of a hundred spoiled supermodels.
This balance between the real and the surreal isn't just an abstract idea, though. Taymor's actors literally embody it. Although most are encased in elaborate masks and costumes, they manage to create vivid living characters with their movements and gestures.
Derek Smith as the king does this with particularly awesome skill, and to especially hilarious effect. And Edward Hibbert's wicked grandmother - half-beetle, half-woman and all man - is a sight to behold.
But the pleasure of "The Green Bird" is in the way Taymor weaves all the elements together, blending performance, design and Elliot Goldenthal's witty, arresting score into a seamless enchantment.
There's no better way to fly.
“The Green Bird," at the Cort Theatre, is a union of two theatrical traditions - the magical and the satirical.
The 1765 fable by Venetian Carlo Gozzi, translated and adapted here by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery, involves a young brother Renzo (Sebastian Roche) and sister Barbarina (Katie MacNichol) who, under the influence of a fresh, self-promoting philosophy, leave the humble, sausage-selling home of their foster parents to seek their fortune.
Under the inspiration of their new greedy ethic, they find fortune and glamour in the city of Monterotondo, but not happiness.
The boy pines for a stone maiden while the girl is mysteriously attracted to a green bird.
Good advice is given the pair by a huge statue head (it's a bit like Mussolini). The statue lacks a nose but knows a thing or two about life.
Roughly speaking, this is the magical side of the performance. It is shaped superbly by the careful, imaginative Julie Taymor, who presented "The Green Bird" at the New Victory in 1996 and has expanded, while not essentially changing, her vision at the Cort.
The satirical side of the fable begins with the two poor sausage sellers (Didi Conn and Ned Eisenberg), who rescued the young pair long ago under unclear circumstances.
Meanwhile, years later, we meet the head of the society of Monterotondo - a king who is a limp, feckless twit given to extradramatic cracks about the script of the play (a flawlessly funny Derek Smith).
Among the members of the king's court are his sensible servant Pantalone (Andrew Weems) and the king's evil mother, who tried to drown the royal babies (who, it turns out, are our brother-sister pair), claiming that they were puppies.
Played with exaggerated melodrama by Edward Hibbert, she is a delightfully nasty, bustle-wearing creature.
The queen (Kristine Nielsen) has been imprisoned for many years in a toilet. Such is life among the powerful.
The talking head guides the brother and sister to the domain of the Green Bird (Bruce Turk), and all is put right. It is the realm of metamorphosis and the miraculous.
The young pair must learn humility. The queen mother turns into a turtle. The king stays, thank heaven, a silly ass. And our Green Bird changes into a handsome prince.
Derek Smith is a joy as the king, moping and collapsing in his great, floppy-eared, sad-sack mask, white suit and velvet slippers. (Only the comic characters wear masks; romantic figures do not.)
All is orchestrated happily. Taymor and composer Elliot Goldenthal have found the magic in Gozzi.
The satirical is another thing - the misfortunes of the toilet-trapped queen are, for example, not successful.
The only complete triumph is the self-pitying king. I think, in fact, that "The Green Bird" worked better in the smaller and less demanding space of the New Victory.
At the Cort, it looks sometimes overwhelmed. But no grinchiness here. It is a treat, a delightfully inventive and deliciously enjoyable fable for the family.
If the Tony Awards had a category for best performance by a piece of fruit in a musical role, there's no question about which current Broadway show would provide the winner. Ditto for best performance by an actor denied the use of the upper two-thirds of his face. And for best use of eyelids by an oversize broken statue.
These unlikely nominees are among the highlights of ''The Green Bird,'' Julie Taymor's alternately enchanting and tedious adaptation of Carlo Gozzi's 18th-century fable and a production that definitely stakes out an unclaimed patch in the shifting landscape of Broadway entertainments.
Ms. Taymor, whose distinctive brand of theatrical wizardry became world famous when she translated Disney's ''Lion King'' cartoon to the stage, sets her sights here on an adult audience with a childlike capacity for wonder, creating a ribald world in which the impossible is a matter of course.
Big, shiny McIntosh-like apples split open to reveal platinum-blond sirens at their cores; a naked marble goddess of a statue melts into animation; a pyramid of chattering skulls guard the exquisite little bird of the title. Such visions occur often enough that toward the play's end, its characters grow impatient with all these fairy-tale shenanigans. ''What miracle?'' one of them asks. ''I'm used to this by now.''
Theatergoers are unlikely to feel equally blase about the Ovidian transformations that Ms. Taymor and company keep conjuring in ''The Green Bird,'' which opened last night at the Cort Theater. It's the wait between miracles that's the problem.
That Ms. Taymor has guts, style and artistic ambition to burn is indisputable. Who else would reintroduce masks as an essential part of actors' costumes and characters? Who else who would dare present a long philosophical fairy tale, performed in commedia dell'arte style and of a length and whimsy unsuitable for most children, in the land of ''Footloose'' and ''Saturday Night Fever''?
As anyone knows who has seen her ''Lion King'' or her recent film fantasia of Shakespeare's bloody ''Titus Andronicus,'' Ms. Taymor plies a creative vocabulary unlike that of any other director in mainstream show business. The eclecticism that has been going under the rubric postmodern for several decades doesn't begin to describe her work.
The sources of her theatrical tools, which range from shadow puppets to shamanlike masks, stretch back over millennia, not mere decades, and span all manner of civilizations. And there's no distancing irony in the presentation of these elements, no breezy quotation marks.
Even in a lighter mood, which ''The Green Bird'' more or less represents, Ms. Taymor is gravely asking audiences to respond to the eternal in ritualized theater, to the ceremonial transfiguration of the ordinary into the symbolic. Or as a program note for ''The Green Bird'' concludes, ''Do we go to the theater to see ourselves reflected, or to be transported elsewhere?''
Whatever the objective, a piece of theater has to keep you engaged on its own terms for as long as the house lights are down. ''The Green Bird,'' a long and winding tale of royal twins on an allegorical journey to self-knowledge, dazzles in its flights of imagery, but when the connecting story takes over, you may find your thoughts drifting to unreturned phone calls and unclaimed dry cleaning.
This ''Green Bird'' -- which features attractively varied music by Elliot Goldenthal and the crack design team of Christine Jones (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting) -- was first seen in an Off Broadway production at the New Victory Theater in 1996. Its basic elements, including its most spectacular set pieces and much of its cast, remain the same. Ms. Taymor and her ensemble have definitely come some distance in creating a cohesive style of performance.
The best of the performers achieve an enlivening fusion of flesh and artifice. As Tartaglia, a self-described ''melancholy monarch,'' Derek Smith, who won an Obie award for the part four years ago, is saddled with an immense, jug-eared artificial head that suggests Prince Charles in a fun house mirror. He is also wonderfully expressive.
True, he seems to wear his head as if it were an annoying but necessary encumbrance, but then don't we all from time to time? Mr. Smith has come up with an alphabet of physical gestures, exaggerated but fluid, that do indeed melt the man and the mask into one.
Other performers, though not on the same level, often bring a balletic grace to antic shtick. They include Edward Hibbert as an evil queen mother who wears a bustle the size of a coffee table; Didi Conn and Ned Eisenberg as a Punch-and-Judy pair of sausage makers; and the wonderful Kristine Nielsen as Tartaglia's wronged queen, who is imprisoned in the castle sewers.
There are also, memorably, Bruce Turk, who actually seems to become the green bird puppet he manipulates with a stick; Sophia Salguero as the Jean Harlowesque leader of a trio of singing apples with tree-tall stems and the heavy-lidded, house-size head of a statue named Calmon, whose voice is supplied by Andrew Weems.
The only central characters who wear their own faces are Barbarina (Katie MacNichol) and Renzo (Sebastian Roche), orphaned twins who discover their parentage only after learning the perils of false philosophy, greed and vanity as well as of dragons and dancing skeletons.
Their deliberately stilted performances bring to mind those story theater productions that tour schools. Not having your own mask in a Taymor production is definitely a disadvantage. You have to feel that Mr. Hibbert's queen has a point when he observes disdainfully of Barbarina that the girl has ''no dowry, no parents, no mask.''
That is the pinnacle of verbal comedy in this ''Green Bird,'' which has been translated by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery from the Italian, although room seems to have been left for improvised jokes that range from the scatological to shameless topical puns. (Barbarina's lingerie is said to come from ''Vittoria's Da Secret.'')
Many of the raunchier elements are provided by an evil soothsayer (Reg E. Cathey) who talks in rap and reggae and provides sexual services to the queen. Ms. Taymor's wit is clearly more visual than verbal, and her sense of the transcendent moment stronger than her gift for narrative.
The problem with allegorical characters is that they walk a predetermined path and respond in predetermined ways. No matter how elaborately and imaginatively they are dressed up, there has to be something surprising about them that comes from within if they are to keep us company for any length of time.
The visual eclat and creative energy in ''The Green Bird'' could happily fill a show half as long. At its current two hours and 15 minutes, the production is like an oversize art gallery where the pictures are ravishing but there's a lot of bare wall between them.
Julie Taymor, who uncaged a major feline on Broadway a few seasons back, returns with a more modest but no less visually resplendent creature in "The Green Bird." A freewheeling adaptation of Carlo Gozzi's 18th century comedy-fantasy, Taymor's latest animal is a perfectly charming alternative to Broadway's more glitzy family entertainments. The question is how many families will be willing to pop for $ 75 tickets to a show that the kiddies aren't likely to be clamoring for. Gozzi does not, after all, have the must-see appeal of Simba.
In fact, "The Green Bird" was distinctly more delightful when it was originally produced (with a $ 25 top ticket) in 1996 by Theater for a New Audience, at the family-oriented New Victory Theater. (The production was later re-staged at the La Jolla Playhouse.) It has been embellished for Broadway in ways that dampen the appeal of its primarily visual delights. Gozzi's tale of royalty straying on the path to true love is slight and somewhat archly whimsical, and the play's humor, in Albert Bermel and Ted Emery's contemporary translation, is strictly juvenile. Alas, both the archness and the juvenility have been exaggerated for Broadway, resulting in a coarser-toned production. At 2 1/2 hours, with a long intermission and a splashy musical finale, "The Green Bird" now feels dangerously attenuated.
The plot mixes classic commedia dell'arte archetypes with more exotic elements. It follows the wandering fortunes of Barbarina (Katie MacNichol) and Renzo (Sebastian Roche), two youngsters who've been robbed of their royal inheritance by a wicked grandmother. Kids of a philosophical bent, they set out on a journey of self-discovery when they learn that the sausage-sellers who raised them aren't their real parents at all. Scornful of affection, and seeing self-love everywhere, they are guided on a path to a more humane philosophy by some supernatural assistants, including a giant, talking stone statue and a green bird who flutters protectively around Barbarina and is, in fact, a spellbound prince.
Taymor has gathered a talented array of designers to execute her vision, and their contributions are so well integrated that it's sometimes hard to know who's responsible for what. Christine Jones' sets are stark and simple, employing colorful adorning details that stand out against background canvases of white, black or gold. Constance Hoffman's mostly black and white costumes are unfailingly inspired --- one of the show's delightful surprises arrives when Barbarina and Renzo's papier-mache newsprint togs are ripped away in an instant when their fortunes rise, to reveal shiny, silken garb. Donald Holder's artful lighting mixes Crayola-bright colors and dramatic combinations of spotlights and shadows.
Taymor herself has supplied the production's wondrously clever puppetry and masks. With the exceptions of the young heroes, the characters all wear masks or half-masks that give fixed form to an essential aspect of their characters. The mournful king Tartaglia has his misery etched on his face, and Derek Smith finds such a wonderfully vivid voice for this whiny, put-upon ruler that his mask seems to change with his moods. Tartaglia is under the cruel thumb of his wicked mother, who's costumed to look like a sparkling black insect, with an exaggerated bustle and a wormy, curdled-looking wig. She is played with imperious panache by Edward Hibbert. Didi Conn and Ned Eisenberg, as the unhappily married sausage-sellers, also turn their masked characters into ripe comic types. In fact it's the unmasked MacNichol and Roche who have the hardest time creating plausible characters from the somewhat fey dialogue they're given.
There are many wonderful, indescribable visual setpieces that inspire delighted gasps, particularly a musical interlude in the second act featuring a trio of levitating, singing apples and an inventively staged sing-along gag. (Elliot Goldenthal's marvelously textured music is sometimes eerie, sometimes full of tongue-in-cheek showbiz verve.) The animal of the title is a Bunraku-style puppet manipulated and voiced by Bruce Turk, clad in effacing black. Such is the artfulness of his and Taymor's work that the bird's transformation into human form in the end almost comes as a disappointment.
The parade of visual enchantments may not, however, hold the attention of adult audiences for the duration of the show. While eyes are being dazzled, the ears can grow tired at the consistently broad level of the humor and the rudimentary progress of the fairy-tale plot (at an hour and a half, say, without an intermission, this wouldn't be such a problem).
Commedia dell'arte is one of those popular --- and essentially lowbrow --- forms that is forever being magnanimously embraced and defended and revived by highbrow artists. It's not really art of a sophisticated order, and it requires a surprisingly sly and delicate touch if it is to distinguish itself from its common contemporary equivalents --- which are to be found, free of charge, at the click of a remote control. Although its visual allures are still intact, this Broadway incarnation of Taymor's "Green Bird" seems to have lost that touch. While kids may be delighted from start to finish, perhaps only adult theatergoers of a curatorial bent will find "The Green Bird" an entirely rewarding evening of theater.