- Karin Abromaitis (far left) stars in the Washington Shakespeare Company's 'The Gnadiges Fraulein' as a Cocalooney bird. (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)
Birds of a feather flock together in theater, too: How else to explain the coincidence of the multitude of bird performances in D.C. theaters this month? First, there's the titular character of Constellation Theatre's The Green Bird (closing this weekend), in which Rex Daugherty stars as a prince trapped in a bird's body. The company will remount The Ramanya later this summer, with Amy Quiggins playing a bird in the epic Sanskrit tale. Chickens are featured prominently in Forum Theatre's just-opened Bobrauschenbergamerica, and Joe Brack will don a chicken suit for the play. And in the Washington Shakespeare Company's second of two short Tennessee Williams plays, "The Gnadiges Fraulein," Karin Abromaitis has the role of the fictional, and vicious Cocalooney bird, who terrorizes the residents of a boarding house in Cocalooney Key.
So if D.C. actors have birds on the brain, it's because playing one requires a lot of preparation and study. Far more than just strapping on some wings, acting an avian role requires movement training to study and mimic real animals.
"I looked at lots of video footage of birds," says Abromaitis, whose Cocalooney is a non-speaking role. The Cocalooney battles the Gnadiges Fraulein at the docs each day for fish, and maims her viciously. "There's some references to the Cocalooney being pelican-like, and I found that pelicans are pretty boring, so I spent some time looking at cranes – the sandhill crane mating dance, some of my movement is based on that."
- Daugherty as The Green Bird (Photo: Scott Suchman)
Daugherty, on the other hand, was more inspired by modern dance than any particular species of birds.
"Our assistant director, Leigh Jameson, was a great resource when building a vocabulary of movement for my character. I knew I wanted him to be weightless and airy so Leigh really helped me articulate those qualities," says Daugherty in an email. In The Green Bird, a fairy-tale about ungrateful children and material greed, he must teach a lesson to foolish daughter Barbarina. "Several other characters mentioned how The Green Bird seems to 'flutter' around Barbarina, so that was an obvious clue as to how this character should move."
"Also, for kicks and giggles, I borrowed a few moves from Soulja Boy's 'Bird Walk' dance (if you watch close enough, you might spot it)," says Daugherty. "Since Tom Teasley's music is percussion oriented, a hip hop flair seemed appropriate."
Soulja Boy - Bird Walk (New) by LiL-Boyz
Imitating a bird (or rapper who dances like one) isn't enough. Bird actors have to get into character by understanding the motivations of their birds, which comes to them after careful study.
"We talked about the intention of what the bird wanted," says Abromaitis. "Was the bird acting on its environment, or reacting to its environment? Am I on the attack, or am I in defensive mode? Am I looking for food, or the Gnadiges or vengeance?" Ultimately, she says, "I'm just a stupid bird, so my world is about eating, and not much more than that."
Daugherty gets into character each night by doing plenty of stretches and warm-up exercises. The Green Bird's set (designed by A.J. Guban) features percussionist Tom Teasely in a wiry birds nest, which Daugherty must climb throughout the play. Abromaitis saw his performance, and remarked that the set enhanced the illusion of Daugherty as a bird.
"That set that he has to climb on is great fun, it gets him in the air," says Abromaitis. "I'm completely earthbound. I can only create the illusion when offstage that I'm in the air. He does it on stage, so I'm jealous of that."
Both Abromaitis and Daugherty strap on feathered wings and beaks, which have their drawbacks.
"I cannot get into [my costume] by myself, it's lots of layers … I have limited use of my hands. There's a strap in the wing to help me control them," says Abromaitis, whose costume was not complete until the first preview performance. As for her mask, "I love that I have that long skinny beak, but it does kind of dig into my upper lip, it's a little numb by the end of the show."
- Abromaitis as the Cocalooney (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)
Daugherty's costume permits more movement – he has to climb, after all – but comes with its own set of challenges.
"Worst part: It's...uh...tight. And I won't miss the massive amount of green make up I have to scrub off every day," says Daugherty. "The best part is that several people have asked if I've lost weight. Our costume designer, Kendra Rai, made us all look good!"
But the most important question remains: If these two imaginary birds were pitted against each other, "Animal Face-Off" style, who would win?
"Because of the nature of the role, [The Green Bird] is imbued with more human qualities than mine is," says Abromaitis. "I'm really kind of going after something primitive and birdlike and without thought, which is almost kind of opposite of what his bird is trying to create."
Therefore, "I would beat the crap out of The Green Bird," declares Abromaitis, though she concedes, "He's got magic, but I've got meanness. I'm sure The Green Bird would be able to impede the Cocalooney at something."
Daugherty doesn't disagree. Though he hasn't seen "The Gnadiges Fraulein," "My character is young prince trapped in a green bird's body, so by default, he is more of a lover than a fighter." says Daugherty. "[Tennessee] Williams is an overall 'tougher' playwright than [Carlo] Gozzi and his commedia influence. So they would certainly be birds of a different feather, if you will."