SALT LAKE CITY — The nativity has immortalized in church roadshows and Hollywood films alike. Javen Tanner’s unique movement creation, This Bird of Dawning, pays homage to the biblical tale in a fresh and compelling way.
Performed by an ensemble of 16 actors, each robed in a similar white toga and wearing a neutral white, This Bird of Dawning is an eclectic mix of sacred and modern music, interspersed with quotes and lines from scripture and prominent authors. The primary focus, however, is on the visuals. This Bird of Dawning is less a play than it is a living tableau, using a combination of draped fabric, masks exaggerated movement, and lighting (designed by Jaron Hermansen) to create vivid pictures.
By far the most striking image of the evening was at the moment of the Messiah’s birth, when Mary stood in the midst of a veritable spider’s web of gauzy fabric, which were smoothly rolled into a comfortable bed and the form of an infant. Another standout scene was a journey montage, where the three wise men trudged across the stage while the ensemble bothered them like flies. It was an evocative image, and it was easy to sense the weight of exhaustion that rested on the trio during their travels.
An incredibly effective piece of the evening was the use of neutral masks. Far from masking the actors ability to show emotion, it seemed instead to enhance it. So much human communication is based on movement, and by covering the face, Javen Tanner, in his capacity as the show’s director, forces the audience to focus on the rest of the actor’s instrument. At no point were the characters feelings or intentions unclear, a real victory in a silent movement piece. The masks also led to some beautiful moments, including a scene where Mary and Joseph as newlyweds removed their masks to each other, only to reveal another mask below the first. At another moment, the wise men removed their wooden masks to present to the Christ child, symbolically offering their devotion and gifts to the Christ child.
This Bird of Dawning is unique and achieved some real moments of beauty, but nevertheless may not be to every taste. The piece is short, running at under 60 minutes, but the pacing feels monotonous. Most scenes were paced to be slow and deliberate. While this was certainly necessary for some of the imagery, the piece would have benefited from some more significant tempo changes. The moments where the actors chose sharp movements, or quick transitions were a welcome shake up from the overall pace of the show.
Yet, this is an ensemble piece, and the cast worked well together. Rain Tanner stood out with her portrayal of Mary. She was able to successfully physicalize the exhaustion of child birth in a way that prompted genuine empathy. Her actions were so genuine and heartfelt that her blank mask almost seemed to take on expression. Ben Mortenson was also an effective Christ, creating a physical performance that was gentle but authoritative.
Sadly, the production I attended was This Bird of Dawning’s tenth and final year of performance. If you’re looking for a unique theater experience that goes beyond traditional musical theatre offerings, I definitely recommend following Sting and Honey Theater Company to see what they do next.