When it comes to artistic performance, I tend to go overboard with expectations. If I'm familiar with the specific parameters of a play or movie I develop a precise idea of in my head before I actually see it, deciding exactly what it's going to be like and how much I am going to like it. As one might assume, this often results in disappointment; things aren't always what they seem. So lately I've been trying to change my ways, to break this pattern of naivety and seek pleasant surprise rather than sinking heart.
I arrived at the ODC Theater in the Mission District knowing little more about the opera I was about to see than its title, which alone was intriguing: Our Breath Is As Thin As a Hummingbird's Spine. It wasn't until I sat down and opened my program that I read a plot description. It was about a man who falls in love... with a bird. I felt my heart begin to sink. I try to keep an open mind about art but life-long East Coast cynicism is hard to shake and I don't have much patience for the outwardly absurd. But as the lights were lowered and the orchestra cued up, I gave myself a mental slap in the face. "You're in California now," I thought. "Time to relax."
I'm very glad I did. Our Breath Is As Thin As a Hummingbird's Spine is one of those rare performances that sculpts absurdity into inspired genius, venturing just far enough into weirdness to be delightfully quirky instead of irritatingly bizarre. The stage is small but well used, set with wooden structures wryly labeled with big paper tag s-- "door," "nest," "root" -- and infused with misty haze and muted light that suggest the air of an enchanted forest. At the back, a gauzy curtain is stretched taut to enclose the orchestra: a seven-piece ensemble called Nanos Operetta that is easily the best part of the show. The score incorporates instruments and elements of music from all over the world and a variety of genres to create a lively, eclectic (self-described as "cartoonish") and enormously enjoyable sound that perfectly compliments the electric movements of two members of inkBoat, an international performance theater company, who play the man and the bird.
Though the bird looks like he might have taken a wrong turn off Sesame Street, the man is inexplicably wearing an eye patch for much of the 90-minute performance, and the story of their unrequited love is not quite believable, their acrobatics, which combine physical theater and Japanese Butoh Dance, are fantastically whimsical, funny, and great fun to watch.
And then there is the libretto. Throughout the show, vocalist-narrator Nils Frykdahl, of local "avant-rock" band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, wanders the shadows of the stage, every so often breaking into song. Some of the lyrics -- reminiscent of Japanese poetry -- are very beautiful, and his baritone is pitch-perfect, but at times this third element of the performance feels unnecessary, distracting from the terrific music and dance-acting, and Frykdahl's deliverance can be a little hammy.
When all was said and done, I found Our Breath Is As Thin As a Hummingbird's Spine to be successful if only because it accomplished the seemingly impossible: it melted the heart of this New York (well, OK, Connecticut) snob.
Our Breath Is As Thin As a Hummingbird's Spine runs through July 28, 2007 at ODC. Get tickets and information (at odctheater.org).