There are a lot of ingredients to make something funny. From funny characters to an outrageous plot, funny comes in many forms. But sometimes combining ingredients may be a disaster and recipe for crickets. In Birds Should Fly Free, aside from the title character, the only other nonhumans on stage were the crickets.
Billed as a comedy cross between “Animal Farm” and “House of Cards”, Birds Should Fly Free is set in a new America where humans and animals live together as the only rights being fought for are animal rights. The play follows science project turned tyrannical parrot Alex as he goes on a Frank Underwood-like journey to become President. On the way we meet a cast of characters including sugar daddy Hank, his handsome twink boyfriend Max, animal lawyer Maude, and two television reporters present only to offer commentary in between scenes. Written by Alex McFarlane, Birds Should Fly Free is a script packed with unfunny jokes and puns that induce more groans than laughs. The satirical plot McFarlane has devised on paper sounds intriguing but as the characters take on these outrageous archetypes, nothing seems to mesh. McFarlane’s script features a main cast of four that propel the plot but for some odd reason, he introduces two television reporters who serve as a device for sharing backstory and nothing more. These characters easily could have been voice-overs during scene shifts as there was no sound or music to speak of during these. Well, except for that moment the "House of Cards" theme song played. Alex the talking parrot is a wonderful way to incorporate a puppet into theater but by the end when, spoiler alert, he takes over the country, having him appear in human form takes away from the fun and original intent. If the goal is to watch him grow and rise to power, by solely making his world expand does the trick. By abandoning the puppet concept at the end, the battle between animal and human is lost.
With a pretty weak script, the ensemble had difficulty tackling this world. However there were two nice performances. First was puppeteer Joseph Garner as Alex. Garner created a wonderful voice to Alex bringing his expertise to the stage as he operated the creature. The other great performance came from Anthony Ritosa as Max. Ritosa shined as the hot dumb blonde with a mission and passion for using his hands. On the flip side, Richard Fisher's Hank had very little chemistry with Ritosa’s Max. The odd pairing was what the script called for but their believability factor took away from the action. Karen McFarlane as Maude the lawyer was quite flat bringing nothing but monotony and confusing recurring jokes.
Director Veronica Dang seemed to have great trouble making sense of this world. With no design team to work with, the overall production lacked. Dang’s staging was static with an incredibly bland stage picture, though the furniture was sleek and attractive. Dang left so many pockets of air between and within the scenes, it stalled any momentum and comedies have a need for speed. The other questionable moment came from the inclusion of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” during intermission when half the audience is in the bathroom. The song would have been the perfect curtain call moment. Cheap laughs are what do the trick.
When the audience arrives, each person is given a sheet of paper to write down a “safe word” that the cast may use in the show. It should be noted that I was the lucky winner of this game at the performance I attended. What’s unfortunate is that my safe word may have brought more laughs than some of the scripted jokes. Birds Should Fly Free is the quintessential Fringe show: a crazy concept with an intriguing poster that just doesn’t work.