Review: ‘The Thrush and the Woodpecker: a Revenge Play’ (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger

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This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Who’s that knocking at the door? You might not want to know . . .

Noah Hendriks (Adam Magill) has big problems. The astronomy major has been expelled from his prestigious private college: he smashed all the street lamps on campus in a protest against light pollution. Returning home to his mother’s isolated house in the middle of nowhere, he finds her less than sympathetic.

In the opening scene, the two banter and barter as Adam defends his action and his mother Brenda (played by Stacy Ross) struggles with her own problems: a runaway husband and a taste for morning whiskey. The play is unfolding as a fairly conventional, well written family drama when the action is interrupted by an ominous knock on the door. Nobody’s there. The knock came from an aggressive woodpecker. Adam investigates to find the entire yard filled with woodpeckers, a strangely threatening sight. The isolated locale and the strange noises start to take on an ominous, haunting significance.

Adam Magill and Stacy Ross as mother and son (maybe) in "The Thrush and the Woodpecker: a Revenge Play." Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
Adam Magill and Stacy Ross as mother and son (maybe) in “The Thrush and the Woodpecker: a Revenge Play.” Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

Brenda leaves on an errand and the woodpecker knocks again. This time, Adam discovers no woodpecker, but the mysterious Róisín Danner (Fontana Butterfield), who pushes her way past the threshold with smiles and an oddly aggressive off beat charm. She claims to be a friend of Brenda’s from the distant past. As Róisín and Adam converse, the play shifts into something strange and increasingly scary.

Who is the mysterious Róisín ? What secrets does she hold about Brenda’s past? Is she a threat? As the creepiness factor increases, the birds outside become more aggressive, stranger in their behavior. Brenda returns from her errand and sends her son away.

Just who, exactly, is the mysterious Róisín (Fontana Butterfield). Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
Just who, exactly, is the mysterious Róisín (Fontana Butterfield)? Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

Left alone, the two women confront each other about a shared and profoundly disturbing past. Challenges are thrown down, secrets revealed.

It is difficult to tell too much without spoiling, but since the title includes the phrase “a revenge play,” I suppose it is not revealing too much to say that Róisín is on a mission of vengeance. But why? Is it justified? Is she mad? Has a crime been committed?

Playwright Yocky raises questions that go unanswered until the disturbing denoument. It is a wonderful script, packing the story into 70 minutes of real time, keeping the audience enthralled. A brief epilogue ties up the loose ends.

The actors do excellent work exploring the complex relationships, especially Stacy Ross and Adam Magill as mother and son. As the mysterious visitor, Róisín, Fontana Butterfield keeps us guessing as to her sanity, her sincerity, and even her humanity.

This is a wonderful production, but one senses the play could be taken much further in its exploration of an unspeakable horror. There is something beyond the human in this story, as terrifying as Dracula, that is not quite fully explored in this production. A more careful balance between the natural and supernatural worlds of the play could have made this already excellent production even better.

Fans of traditional Japanese horror stories will particularly savor the stalking terror evoked by the mysterious Róisín . And I should mention that the overall creepiness is greatly enhanced by a surreal bit of animated story telling, credited to David Goodwin.

“The Thrush and the Woodpecker: a Revenge Play” is being presented as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premieres, which means the playwright continues to develop this work in collaboration with at least three different theatre companies. One hopes this approach will result in many more productions, which the play richly deserves.

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Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

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The Thrush and the Woodpecker: a revenge play by Steve Yockey, a “rolling world premiere” produced by Custom Made Theater and the National new Play Network. Direcgtor: Tracy Ward. Scenic Designer: Dan Bilodeau. Costume Designer: Kitty Torres. Sound Designer: Liz Ryder. Lighting Designer: Cassie Barnes. Props Designer: Grisel Torres. Fight Choreographer: Jon Bailey. Animation Design: David Goodwin.

Cast: 

Brenda Hendriks: Stacy Ross. Noah Hendriks: Adam Magill. Róisín Danner: Fontana Butterfield.

 

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