How many birds come out the egg ready to fly? This gleefully low-budget epic adventure by a London-based stage trio called Giant Bird looks like something newly hatched: even by Fringe standards, the show is cute in a scraggly, spindly way, the performers appealingly hungry and eager to test their wings. And while Empire seems to have made its transatlantic flight before all its parts were in working order — there are moments, particularly toward the end, when the creators’ inventiveness fails them and the whole foolhardy enterprise threatens to crash – there’s no question this bird is bound for great heights.
To tell their story, comedic cohorts Seiriol Davies, Karim Muasher and Ryan Underbakke step into the eccentric personae of Lucey Fair (a painter), Rifle Lancaster (a soldier) and Archibald Manhattan, a son of privilege and CEO of Manhattan Industries, the land of Mond’s militaristic corporate overlord. We meet Bald, as he’s called for short, on the occasion of his 10th birthday, and again at 15; moments later, the serious boy has grown into a savvy young executive, negotiating a truce between two grumbling shadow-puppet adversaries, with help from an old-school carousel slide projector and a couple of angry fists. The conflict is resolved by the Treaty of Candy, a form of diplomacy most parents will recognize. (This is one of a few Fringe shows you can take the kids to.)
Free from war-waging, the noble Bald sets off to the distant East in search of the Red Sylvester, a bird so rare, so beautiful, it might not actually exist. Bald persuades Lucey and then Rifle to join the quest, which takes them through forests (bodies branched like trees), across rivers (scribbled wave projections, a billowy bed sheet, and a “boat” formed by a couple of two-by-fours), over a desert (walking in super-slow-mo, pouring “sand” out of shoes), and up a snowy mountain (crinkling contours of crumpled-up newspapers). We see it all.
Finally lost in the wilderness, unsure whether to journey on or to give up and go home, the companions take stock: “We have purpose. We have time,” says Bald, who’s determined to press ahead, while Lucey deadpans, “We have two Manhattan protein bars and a ham sandwich.”
These slim resources turn out to be enough — just enough — to take our heroes where they want to go. But it’s not a destination we expect.
This otherworldly fable unfolds in an appropriately raw venue beneath the Duveneck Flats condos on Vine Street, a space said to be under development as a restaurant. (Don’t make the mistake I did and drive to Covington’s Duveneck Arts & Cultural Center.) For now, the rough brick walls, plywood floor and DIY lighting make a comfortable nest for the three-winged geniuses of Giant Bird, although pillars block the view from some seats.
Maybe this Fringe perch will help Giant Bird grow Empire into a fully finished work — one with more consistent narrative velocity and lift, perhaps some finer feathers, and monster villains more imaginative than “the shoe people” — without sacrificing the story’s lovable, loopy impossibility and the production’s “poor theater” aesthetic. Above all, the tale needs a clearer, more satisfying conclusion: Wednesday’s opening performance ended with one of those awkward silences suffered by audiences unsure whether it’s time to applaud.
Soon enough, though, we did. With an enthusiasm just this side of airborne.
Performed at Duveneck through June 5. See performance dates and preview here.