Hyacinth Macaw Impresses Again

Marcus Stern delivers a sterling production

We are presented with a sinister portrait of a family dissolving before our very eyes, and what we see is a world turning in on itself and collapsing into the vacuum of oblivion. What remains is the proof that the very notion of self-identity is a sham. The only thing missing from this ambitious interpretation of Mac Wellman’s play “The Hyacinth Macaw”—is subtitles. Yes, they would have been much appreciated.

Director Marcus Stern, an Associate Director at the American Repertory Theatre, oversaw the play’s original 1994 production at Primary Stages in New York City. His new production is the result of a collaboration with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s 2008 Visiting Directors Project. The play is at once an overwhelming spectacle of words that simultaneously aims to confuse, humor, and enlighten, without an end in sight. Initially, this constant bombardment is unsettling, for it prevents the audience from ever feeling comfortable with what is occurring on stage and from merely following what is being said. But surprisingly, the production as a whole doesn’t suffer from being somewhat incomprehensible. The show, which runs Thursday through Saturday at the Loeb Mainstage, finds a successful footing under Stern’s experienced direction.

What differentiates the “Hyacinth Macaw” from other plays is its rather disjointed plot line and lack of a coherent narrative structure. However, the basic story revolves around Raymond (Alex R. Breaux ’09) and Dora (Sarah A. Sherman ’09), an ostensibly typical married couple raising their teenage daughter Susanna (Tali B. Friedman ’10) in blissful ignorance of the bizarre tragedy that will soon threaten their familial ties. This semblance of peace is soon disturbed by the emergence of Mr. William Hard (Jack C. Cutmore-Scott ’10), an enigmatic foreigner dressed all in black who confronts the family with an extraordinary circumstance. While Hard’s literal mission is obvious—to inform Ray that he is a “duplicate” and must be replaced—his primary objective remains shrouded in the utmost secrecy until the play’s conclusion.

The use of language, or in this case, the deliberate manipulation of words into an unobstructed stream of consciousness, is the driving force behind this production. Wellman adopts traditional dramatic elements such as the monologue but does so in a counterintuitive manner. For example, Raymond’s final speech during his “going-away” party attests to the playwright’s fascination with the paradox of language: the ability to say so much without saying anything at all. And as such, Wellman’s script could potentially have been a recipe for failure, as even a minor slip of the tongue could have detracted from the playwright’s original intent. However, the actors rarely stumbled, excepting minor lapses in memory, and displayed a remarkable poise on stage through the mastery of the challenging script.

Despite the show’s unorthodox approach to language as a means of engaging with the audience, the stage setup is remarkably straightforward. Designed by Courtney E. Thompson ’09, the scenery consists of a whitewashed façade of a two-story home enclosed by a white-picket fence—the quintessential definition of the archetypal middle-class Americana landscape—and the interior of a kitchen. As the action transitions between these two sets, the intended juxtaposition between idyllic fantasy and harsh reality is instantly unsettling, for what Wellman’s script presents is a duality that challenges the nature of perception in a scathing and fast-paced social critique.

Breaux portrays the important role of Raymond with remarkable ease, imbuing his alter ego with a slightly paranoid sensibility and anxious vulnerability that grounds his situation and the science-fiction component of the narrative in a believable reality. As Raymond reads what is essentially his own death-sentence—“Your soul has spontaneously combusted”—his reaction in all its heightened emotionality is disturbingly relatable, as it provokes viewers to question their own legitimacy as human beings. Likewise, Cutmore-Scott brings to his role of Mr. Hand a certain unsettling charm that lends the play its suspenseful tension. Whether he is actually the grim reaper is debatable, but Cutmore-Scott almost perfects his portrayal of Raymond’s more confident doppelgänger. While his acting evoked a certain alluring magnetism, the only minor flaw was that Cutmore-Scott’s character lacked the diversity of Breaux’s interpretation of Raymond.

It’s clear from the polish of the production that director Stern knows his craft well. The show went on with a professional smoothness that’s a testament to his vision. However, it is at once obvious that “The Hyacinth Macaw” isn’t a light play. Instead, it is essentially about the nature of everything and wants to say it all in a mere two-hour time span. While the production hardly accomplished that, in retrospect it succeeded in another aspect—crafting a new appreciation for silence in that elusive search for meaning.