It’s not that hard to create a piece of theater that’s weird or disturbing. But it’s almost impossible to do that while making the work beautiful. This weekend at the Yale Cabaret, “The Bird Bath” manages to do just that.
“The Bird Bath” is a 35-minute work of experimental theater. The show is inspired by “Down Below,” the memoir of Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. In the book, Carrington suffers a mental breakdown after her husband is taken to a concentration camp. “The Bird Bath” recreates that hellish reality onstage.
“The Bird Bath” takes place on a stage divided into three zones by distinct black and white sections painted onto the walls of the theater itself. In these zones, three women play out the hallucinogenic agonies of Carrington’s story. On the left, Ariana Venturi carries out ambiguous science experiments. On the right, Chasten Harmon sometimes acts like a tiger, at other times, like a puppy. In the center, Hannah Leigh Sorenson takes a bath and puts on makeup. In sum, the performance feels like a full narrative, even without a traceable arc.
It is difficult to come to “The Bird Bath” without context, but it felt as if too much context would have been bad as well. When I spoke to director Monique Barbee after the show, I felt that there was no way I could have understood many of the concepts without hearing them directly from her. But I was glad I hadn’t heard them before seeing it. There is more than enough to occupy the audience’s attention even without a traditional narrative to focus on.
The work uses the cozy space of the Cabaret wonderfully, making use of the windows, and stretching the stage area lengthwise so that almost every seat is close to the action on stage. A clothesline hangs right over the heads of the first row of seats. In one of the first scenes, the three women shed their normal clothes, approach that clothesline and slip into brightly colored gowns that stand out against the grays and browns of the set design. Being so close to the stage, the audience does more than just see the action right in front of their faces – they can also smell it. During a particularly disturbing scene, I could smell the white powder a character was furiously applying to her face.
But most striking was what I could hear. The sound design replaced the voices of the actors. None of the women speak words during the show; instead, a voice-over narrates. But the actors are not silent. They emit screeches, puppy whimpers and hellish grunts of agony. Sorenson’s cavewoman grunts are completely believable as she explores her surroundings.
It feels odd to call it acting. The performance felt too real. One simply does not contort one’s body, thrash about and cry out in pain as believably as Sorenson does without feeling that torment inside oneself. Watching her agony, I began to experience it myself. After the show Barbee admitted that an actress had actually injured her hand banging on glass while rehearsing a scene where the character tries to escape a window.
But the anguish comes with a sort of ecstasy. Barbee told me after the show that when reading Carrington’s book, she was struck with how willfully it seemed Carrington put herself through this torment, for the sole sake of developing the perception of other Surrealist artists. “She goes through this obsessive image-making out of the things around her,” Barbee said.
That image-making is where the ecstasy lay. The creators of “The Bird Bath” brought something completely fresh to this world. The movements of the bodies, the sounds I was hearing, the emotions I was feeling — they all seemed new to me. Barbee saw the look of horror on my face when she was talking about Carrington’s book. “It’s an interesting question to ask as an artist,” she said. “Do I have to put myself through what she did?”
Maybe not, but it felt like it was happening anyway during the 35 minutes of the show. The actors and the audience feel the experience of going through anguish for the sake of art. There is a scene where the women repeatedly emulate Queen Elizabeth. In the bathtub, Sorenson goes through a cycle of giggles and smiles. In context, it is utterly disturbing.
Don’t let my talk of the audience’s pain keep you from seeing this show. It is not easy to watch. But it is impossible to let your mind drift away while watching it, and it is impossible to casually forget afterwards. How often do you see a show and not space out here and there? “The Bird Bath” is an original portrayal of art and the human body. I believe that the best art forces you to be changed by it. “The Bird Bath” made the cheerful disturbing and made the horrifying beautiful. I was changed.