Adapted and Directed by Enda Walsh, based on the novel by Max Porter
A Wayward Production in Association with Complicité
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 5.12.19
St. Ann's Warehouse, 45 Water Street
by Ran Xia on 4.26.19
Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing With Feathers. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
BOTTOM LINE: Enda Walsh's new creation depicts the process of grief at monumental levels.
Before he became a (somewhat unconventional) grief counselor and babysitter (specialized in motherless children), Crow had haunted the poetry of Ted Hughes: he’s the last flutter after carnage, a shadow waving a blackest flag. Between man and God, there’s Crow. I’ve always been in awe of that presence of mythological dimensions, and worry that no stage could ever be vast enough to contain such a creature: part demon, part god, permanently alive and growing in the infinite space between fragmented words.
Before seeing the stage adaptation, I had picked up Max Porter’s novel and listened to the Audible version narrated by Jot Davies. Grief is the Thing With Feathers has an abstract narrative that follows a fragmented, non-linear logic, which is not lost on anyone who has loved and mourned. It is a light book with a heavy story, its density so magnetic that it pulls you in and holds you tight as you breathe in its deceptively loose format and delicious rhythm.
The play does not start as much as it is ripped open—Teho Teardo’s music assaults you with jarring, alarming strings reverberating like blood flowing out of a bullet wound. This is followed by hearing, as well as seeing (thank to Will Duke’s projections and Helen Atkinson’s sound design) words scraped onto a wall by a sharp and tired beak: “Part One: Lick of Night in the Morning.” We meet Dad (Cillian Murphy), a writer who’s lost his wife, and two young boys (David Evans and Leo Hart, alternating with Taighen O’Callaghan and Adam Pemberton) who have lost their mother (voiced by Hattie Morahan). Grief is the Thing With Feathers is about what happens afterwards—when you let Crow (also Cillian Murphy) in.
I’ve come to expect Enda Walsh to craft poetry out of sublime madness and make sense out of the surreal. This production does not disappoint in either respect, especially with its brilliant design team. Atkinson’s sound design makes it easy for the production to swing between the real and the imaginary. Though stylistically not dissimilar to his work in Ballyturk (Walsh’s last production at St. Ann's, which I reviewed for Exeunt), Teardo’s composition in Grief is more textured and less sentimental. It enhances the storytelling and expands the world of the play beyond the rectangular stage, which, to quote the artist himself during a talk back, has always been too small.
Duke's projection design seems to have been created with that purpose as well: inner thoughts of the character manifest in monumental scales, and words become literal storm clouds as the madness of Crow consumes the entire space. Lighting designer Adam Silverman also adds to the magic of recreating on stage the most massive storm of the 80s in London, which becomes a backdrop of Crow’s maniacal storytelling. Of course, there’s also Jamie Vartan’s set, an open, almost Spartan flat that collects more and more detritus as the play progresses. It’s a perfect metaphor of experiencing loss: a space simultaneously empty and filled to the brim; every mundane thing becomes weighted with the utmost importance and every pennyworth word reminds you of the one who occupies your heart. Everything adds up to a theatrically thrilling, visually and aurally stunning production that carries the bold quality of a four-dimensional graphic novel.
Murphy is superb as both Dad and Crow. His aggrieved widower connects with the audience directly with a resigned honesty that’s familiar and truthful. Dad’s scenes are quiet; they are still and captivating. But when Murphy transforms into the imaginary bird—with just the pointy hood of a black bathrobe and a birdlike physicality—he shifts the world of the play into a stylized poetic madness that assaults your every sense. Crow does not just tell you the story; he becomes the story itself. He comes from within Dad, from the radio, the TV, and from the storm that’s raging outside the flat.
The characterization of Crow also evolves with the play. In Part Two, “Defense of the Nest,” Crow becomes more vulnerable as Dad begins to process grief through storytelling. The stage becomes both a nursery and a battlefield: Crow engages with the Boys and fights with Dad, carrying the narrative onward with stories that don’t make sense. Yet he still occupies the entire flat. Vartan’s two-storied set becomes a surrealist painting at one point: Crow stirs up a storm as the Boys look on, motionless. Kudos to the young actors who have enough gravitas to hold their own alongside their adult cast mate.
In Part Three, a tired crow asks for “Permission to Leave”—he's finally not needed. As we witness Dad and Boys begin to pick up their own broken pieces, there’s grace, a sense of completion, like looking at scars and remembering the pain, but knowing that you’ll be okay. This is a production that cleanses, even heals. Suspend your expectation for logic because there is no logic in fairy tales, or in grief for that matter. You’ll understand it as long as you’re willing. And you’ll understand it even more if you’ve encountered Crow yourself. Grief is the Thing With Feathers shows how debilitating loss is, and if left unacknowledged, how detrimental. And it might be the most visceral, accurate, and beautiful depiction of mourning I’ve ever seen.
(Grief is the Thing With Feathers plays at St. Ann's Warehouse, 45 Water Street, Brooklyn, through May 12, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 35 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3. Tickets are sold out. Cancellations and rush tickets are available the day of performance at the theatre. Some premium $91 tickets are available at stannswarehouse.org.)
Grief is the Thing With Feathers is adapted and directed by Enda Walsh, based on a novel by Max Porter. Set Design by Jamie Vartan. Lighting Design by Adam Silverman. Sound Design by Helen Atkinson. Original Music by Teho Teardo. Costume Design by Christina Cunningham. Projection Design by Will Duke. Stage Manager is Jo Wolley. Associate Director is James Yeatman.
The cast is Cillian Murphy, David Evans, Leo Hart, Taighen O’Callaghan, Adam Pemberton, and Hattie Morahan.