FRINGE 2019 REVIEW: 'Martha'

"Martha" follows the story of the last passenger pigeon, who died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914

Jun 2, 2019 at 7:51 pm
click to enlarge "Martha" - Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival
Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival

There’s a very interesting note in the program from Director/Playwright, Sean Mette, in which he fondly recalls many childhood trips to the Cincinnati Zoo with his father and brother, where he’d often visit the Passenger Pigeon Memorial, which educates modern visitors about humankind’s obliteration of an entire species of bird. The last of their species — Martha  — died in captivity at the zoo in 1914. Mette has taken that memory and has crafted this play, partly as an ongoing remembrance of our short-sighted cruelty to the animals which whom we share this world, but also partly as a metaphor for how hope is still our best attribute, even in the darkest of circumstances.

These are not spoilers; the program gives us the historical facts.  The bulk of the play takes place in Martha’s cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, where she is soon joined by a male passenger pigeon (George), with whom the humans are hoping she’ll nest with and continue the species.  (Even though these are historically the actual names of the two pigeons, I couldn’t help thinking about the main characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and how the play mirrors a similar family tragedy in many ways).  We follow Martha and George through their meeting and relationship and their eventual heartbreak at failing to produce a viable offspring. The last section of the play introduces two Carolina Parakeets, another endangered species, again destroyed by humankind.

The performances are uniformly good, starting with Anna Masla as Martha and Craig Branch as George, who are joined later by Brandon Leatherland and Katie Groneman as the two parakeets.  Special mention goes to Branch, who showed a tremendous physical and emotional commitment to his character and the situation, displaying tremendous agony and sadness first at his lost freedom and then at his shared heartbreak with Martha.  I appreciated how Mette avoided eliciting a lot of ‘bird behaviors’ from his actors; they inhabited a small space, cleverly using several industrial ladders as levels and platforms. What was most striking about the production was how we forgot fairly quickly that these were birds talking and started instead listening to what they were saying. Because the material was presented without exaggeration or parody, we felt the characters’ tragedy and shared Martha’s almost unexpected words of hope.

This play, unfortunately, has too much relevance today, whether it be in the literal commentary on our environment at risk, or the more symbolic sense of how people can dehumanize and mistreat groups  — human or not — that they perceive as different than themselves.  I’m very glad I saw it; Mette and his actors have a lot to say and it’s definitely worth your time at the Fringe.

The Cincinnati Fringe Festival runs through June 15. Find showtimes, tickets and more info here. Check out more reviews from our CityBeat team here