Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured: Dushane Casteallo and Joel Reitsma. Photo by Lee Miller.
By Conor McShane
We’ve all fantasized about a life in the spotlight at one time or another. For most of us living a typical workaday lifestyle, the idea of being adored by thousands, an endless supply of cash, and carte blanche to act as we please can seem immensely appealing. But BIRDLAND, by British playwright Simon Stephens in its American premiere by Steep Theatre, asks the question: is a life of fame all it’s cracked up to be?
Paul is the frontman of an unnamed band, currently embarking on a world tour. We don’t get much sense of what their music is like, only that they’re reaching heights of popularity they’ve never reached before, along with the privilege—and constant attention—that entails. Stephens eschews a typical dramatic structure, with each scene flowing directly into the next, acting as snippets of life on the road rather than building a traditional narrative. The conceit gets a little exhausting by the end, particularly at over two intermissionless hours, but this is probably by design; life on tour can often feel like an endless blur of arenas and hotel rooms, and Stephens echoes this feeling through the play’s structure. This sensation is bolstered by Joe Schermoly’s adaptable set design, consisting of geometric furniture that’s rearranged in endless configurations, reinforcing the purgatorial feeling of a life spent moving from hotel room to green room to arena stage and back again. As the tour grinds on, Paul’s mental state begins to waver, beginning with seemingly nonsensical musings, eventually leading to full-on hallucinations, illustrated by Brandon Wardell’s trippy lighting and Thomas Dixon’s immersive sound design.
BIRDLAND is largely a character study, with Paul occupying the stage in every scene, along with the various characters in his orbit embodied by the ensemble. It probably wouldn’t work at all without the right actor in the lead, and Joel Reitsma more than delivers. Paul is a tough character to like; he’s charming, but his charisma often quickly curdles into casual cruelty. He humiliates a fan for no reason, sleeps with his best friend and bandmate’s girlfriend, and generally behaves like a petulant child, but Reistma lets enough vulnerability shine through to keep him from being completely monstrous. Particularly in his interactions with his best mate Johnny (Dushane Casteallo, also great) and one scene with his struggling dad (Jim Poole, in a heartbreaking performance), we see the humanity underneath the rock star posturing.
The rest of the ensemble also does great work, each getting at least one scene to shine. Lucy Carapetyan is terrific as Marnie, Johnny’s girlfriend whose affair with Paul has tragic consequences; Aila Peck radiates intelligence and strength as Jenny, Paul’s sort-of love interest; Peter Moore is effectively smarmy as David, the band’s manager and enabler. Cindy Marker and Amber Sallis have less meaty roles, but do great work, particularly as a pair of Russian prostitutes who seem to know more about Paul than they should. It’s all helmed deftly by director Jonathan Berry, who gives us a strong sense of Paul’s paradoxical isolation, even when surrounded by scores of people. In one of his most queasily effective directorial choices, the ensemble remains onstage throughout, sitting on the perimeter and often acting as anonymous, smartphone-wielding fans. It’s an eerily potent reminder that a life of fame comes with its price, whether that’s personal privacy or even identity.
At one point in the play, Paul muses on whether certain people never die, and whether it’s those people you’d never expect, like your postman, or maybe Neil Young. When you have the immense privilege of a famous rock star, it’s easy to feel like you’ll live forever; but like Dracula or Dorian Gray, eternal life, even one of endless indulgence, is more of a prison than a dream. Paul is undoubtedly mortal, even if he might believe otherwise, but as BIRDLAND concludes, his life begins to look more like purgatory than paradise.
BIRDLAND runs through May 12th. For more information visit steeptheatre.com.