There are thousands of words in Mac Wellman's 1994 play Hyacinth Macaw. Unfortunately, one word is missing: "stop," as in "Stop this nonsense IMMEDIATELY."
Wellman is a playwright of considerable merit, an icon of American experimental theater, if not its guru. He has written more than 40 plays; has received three OBIE awards (including a lifetime-achievement nod); and is, by all accounts, a brilliant, thoughtful, amazingly talented writer. But you wouldn't know from this miserably failed piece of experimental theater. A press release from California Repertory Co. (which is producing the play) quotes Wellman as saying Macaw is one of "four plays that . . . taken together, [tell] a story about a young woman adrift and alienated in a world essentially gone mad. . . . Populated by corporate thieves and religious maniacs and desperate losers of all kinds." He goes on to disclose that he doesn't "write psychological plays. . . . I'm interested more in plays about the 'big picture' rather than little intimate studies of a presumably sacrosanct inner life."
That sounds reasonable and important and compelling; unfortunately, it doesn't manifest in Hyacinth Macaw. It's as if the play were afflicted with Tourette's syndrome, continually convulsing in a stream of gibberish.
Hyacinth Macaw by the California Repertory Co. at the Royal Theater aboard the Queen Mary; www.calrep.org. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through March 12. $15-$20.
The basic storyline: a mysterious stranger shows up in a family's back yard. He calls the teenage daughter an orphan and tells the mother he has a letter for her husband. She gives the letter to her husband, Ray. It informs him he is a fake and the mysterious stranger is a duplicate of him. Dad has to leave his family forever. No one really seems to mind, least of all Dad. In Act 2, the mysterious stranger gives Dad a snake because that's apparently a gift where he comes from. Dad leaves, as the other characters sing the chorus of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The stranger is now the new dad; he says the contract calls for him to stay 99 years. The daughter feeds him bugs. Mom runs off with Mad Wu, a vagabond from China. The daughter goes with dad to bury the moon; she caw-caws like a macaw. New dad says we are all orphans. Play over.
Characters spout all sorts of impressive things throughout: "invisible college of devils," "adolescent episodes of theatrical dementia," "only the loving know no repetition." There are crazy machines with randomly generated names (I swear I heard "oscillating microwave snorkel" somewhere in there, but who really knows), long-winded explanations of the physical properties of various metals, and a ceaseless torrent of words that might make sense in an insane person's mind but doesn't do much for those less afflicted.
An air of undeniable menace dominates the proceedings, which recalls one writer who probably inspired Wellman: Harold Pinter. Characters are elliptical, brooding and enigmatic. Talk abounds of adversaries and demons within and Mimbreland, the land of evening, where our mysterious stranger comes from and to where Ray is exiled. And, at first, the tension works. A mystery is unfolding, and it seems one worth solving. But as it plods on and on and on, and every character delivers enormously obtuse monologues, it just gets annoying. And once Mad Wu shows up singing a chantey that is reminscent of something from Pirates of the Caribbean, you know it's time to just write this night off.
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Even the presence of Craig Anton, one of the original members of MADtv, in the role of Ray, fails to shine this turd. There are, obviously, plays that demand more from an audience, that experiment with the nature of reality through word usage that is anything but conventional. And you certainly have to give Wellman credit for following the beat of his private linguistic drummer. But there are also experiments that just don't work—and Hyacinth Macaw should have never left the laboratory.
To not "get" a play like this opens one up to feeling as if one's a Philistine, someone who lacks the intellect to wrestle with highly stylized "art." But it's also possible there really is nothing to get in Wellman's play. And that's fine. Plays that stubbornly refuse to give answers and are instead devoted to making the audience ask questions are absolutely worthwhile.
But what makes plays like that work is that the audience wants to believe there is something to get, which is why Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot still seems so relevant and compelling. It's impossible, at least in this corner, to even want to grasp what's going in Hyacinth Macaw. Ultimately, it feels not only like the emperor isn't wearing any clothes, but that he's also jerking off in the audience's face.
This review appeared in print as "An Adolescent Episode
of Theatrical Dementia: Hyacinth Macaw is experimental theater that should’ve never left the laboratory."