BIRD OF DAWNING sheds new light on the nativity

December 2011

SALT LAKE CITY — The Christmas season is a busy season for theater in Utah. It seems that nearly every theater along the Wasatch Front has some form of holiday entertainment going on during the month. You’ve got at least half a dozen variations of Charles Dicken’s beloved A Christmas Carol playing, and several other nostalgia pieces creeping in, like It’s a Wonderful Life, Babes in Toyland, or A Christmas Story, and you occasionally see new work like this year’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey.

If you like musical theater, then you’re set. You’ve got a wide array of musical offerings in Utah to choose from.
But if you prefer something a bit more substantial, more artistically satisfying, and more true to the reason for the season, then you ought to check out the Sting and Honey Company‘s production of This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long.

The Sting and Honey Company is creating for themselves a reputation for producing high-quality work that pushes the bounds of modern theater in Utah, and this show continues to strengthen that reputation. The show, now in its fourth year of revival, was created by local director Javen Tanner and is a retelling of the Nativity story through a combination of music, mask, movement, and poetry. I say “created” rather than “written” because all of the text in the play comes from an assortment of poems by authors like Li-Young Lee, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, and Shakespeare mixed in with passages from the Gospel of Luke. Tanner has done a masterful job in blending some of the finest poetry in the English language with eloquent visual symbolism and captivating movement.

Also of note is Rachel Brunner’s dance choreography, which was so seamlessly integrated into the rest of the piece that I was often unsure of where the dance ended and the movement work began. The actors all wore neutral masks—blank, white, expressionless masks used to draw attention away from the face and to the body. I thought the mask work was superb and loved the way that multiple layers of masks were used for several of the characters. The masks were also used to great effect as props of sorts and symbols in the action.

Costuming was clean, simple, and powerful. The entire ensemble was clad in white robes, with the occasional colored sash or accent layered on top to identify key characters. The lighting design was also exceptional and provided just the right mood and frame for every scene.

One of my favorite scenes was “Mary Kept All These Things” and depicted the range of emotions Mary must have felt after learning of her divine calling. Two actresses were used for this expression: one represented Mary’s outward actions and appearance, the other her inner feelings—sometimes light and joyful, other times longingly reaching. Another beautiful scene was “The Birth” where Mary was surrounded by long, flowing swaths of fabric that were used in a variety of ways to tell the story and create some visually stunning tableaus in the process.

Without a doubt, the most beautiful scene of the play is “The Christ”, where we finally see the culmination of all that made the Nativity story so important in the grand scheme of things: scenes from the life of Christ. I was deeply touched by this compelling portrait of Christ as a healer, teacher, sufferer, and King. This among other things is what sets this show apart from so many of the other shows this season. This show is all about Jesus Christ–the celebration of whose birth the Christmas season is allegedly about.

Again, Javen Tanner has done a masterful job in staging this show. I often felt like the compositions created were those of a master painter and that I was watching a living painting–which may have some truth to it. If it isn’t clear already, you should know that I really enjoyed this show, and wholeheartedly recommend that you go see it. At the same time, it isn’t for everyone. It’s a highly stylized, thought-provoking, and definitely requires you to use your brain in order to make the connections with the symbols and to follow the somewhat abstracted narrative. If you don’t like modern dance or modern art, then this modern play probably won’t be your cup of tea.

But if you’re up for something different than seeing Tiny Tim hoisted on to Scrooge’s shoulders for the thousandth time, and looking to reconnect with the original story of Christmas in a new way, you should absolutely go to this show.

The Sting and Honey Company’s production of This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long closed December 17 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (138 West 300 South, Salt Lake City). For more information, visit stingandhoney.org.

About Alex Ungerman

Alex Ungerman is finishing a degree in Theatre Arts with an emphasis in Performance at Utah Valley University and is Co-Founder of the Grassroots Shakespeare Company (GrassrootsShakespeare.com).