THE THIRD BIRD
June 13, 2022
Sergei Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf in 1936, after being commissioned by the director of Moscow’s Central Children’s Theatre, Natalya Sats, to write a work that, through marrying narrative and musical motif, would introduce children to symphonic instrumentation. Prokofiev ended up writing the libretto as well, creating an airtight educational piece that has since been filmed, televised, staged, and danced.
In 2007, Guggenheim’s Works & Process series premiered a production with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi narrating, which, under Mizrahi’s subsequent direction in 2013, would go on to include dancers, choreographed by John Heginbotham and costumed by their director/narrator.
Nine years and a pandemic later, Mizrahi has concocted a sequel – a companion piece, written by the designer, entitled The Third Bird, adding composer Nico Muhly to the collaborative mix.
Muhly, like Prokofiev, prioritizes clarity in cross-medium analogs, but departs from Prokofiev’s combination of instrument and theme to achieve it, relying more on instrumentation, and replacing strictly set, varied, and recapitulated themes with the rhythmic atmospheres of modern minimalism contemporary choreographers can’t get enough of.
Some instrumentation/characters carry over – The Bird/Flute (and now Piccolo), the Duck/Oboe (and now English Horn), The Cat/Clarinet, and the Grandfather/Bassoon. Strings have been reassigned from Peter to an Ornithologist, a Central Park Zookeeper is represented by a combination of Harpsichord and Whirly Tube, and the titular Third Bird is an Ostrich, sounded by a Bass Clarinet. The Moon, oddly, has no musical correlate, and was danced by Heginbotham himself when an eleventh-hour injury prevented its intended Gus Solomons, Jr. from performing.
Mizrahi’s narrative, however, is all over the map. What is, in theory, centered on the Ostrich’s journey to embrace itself as a flightless bird is, in practice, distracted by wit for wit’s sake, told as a string of meandering “and then’s” that corner Heginbotham into representing much of the action via dancers reacting to events we are left to imagine.
With the central medium so diffused, it’s anyone’s guess as to the work’s purpose. Mizrahi speaks with child-like awe at the sounds Ensemble Signal uses to portray the characters, and yet his (very entertaining) voice overpowers the score (we’d rather hear more of). His costumes are crafty and clever, but relatively humdrum despite being Mizrahi’s actual medium.
Third Bird is marketed as children’s theater, but when The Duck, after learning to fly to escape Grandfather’s Cat, is sucked into the turbine of an airplane, a young audience member vociferated, “THAT’S NOT FUNNY.” We can perhaps best understand this who’s who of a collaboration as a living New Yorker cartoon, its tongue too far in its cheek to touch any hearts.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews-Guzman