Talking, sentient birds are a staple of children’s entertainment, from Big Bird to Foghorn Leghorn to Aladdin’s Iago. Because we can teach some birds to speak, there’s always that added sense of wonderment: what if they had more to say? In Arthur J. Peabody, a new comedy from Amanda Dempsey-Laughlin now playing at the Virtual 2021 Toronto Fringe Festival, the titular talking bird (Desmond Baxter) tells his story of imprisonment and escape to a wide-eyed child.
The show is earnest and sweet, but the content is pitched to a younger audience, and the script could use some plucking.
The framing device of the show is fairly straightforward: sometime in the late 1800s, a bird alights on the windowsill of a Canadian child in farm country. Finding a surprised but willing audience, he elects to delve into one particular episode from his past. With shades of the Sesame Street film Follow That Bird, where Big Bird also finds himself prisoner to an unscrupulous ringmaster, Arthur is captured and forced to perform.
His unhappiness is lightened by the applause he receives, and his friendship with a beautiful tightrope walker. Each scene is illustrated by a comedic bit, with a relatively large cast playing circus workers and others at the periphery of Arthur’s story.
Though it’s not listed as a KidsFest offering, the broad humour and exaggerated tone of the story and performances are definitely those of a children’s show. Children and adults who enjoy Ross Petty’s yearly pantomimes might find it appealing, though there’s no singing here.
The show’s strengths include a creative use of virtual backgrounds to simulate actors being in the same place, and an attempt to simulate interaction between the characters, passing items between screens. Small animations at the bottom of the screen add visual interest, and the occasional visual gag, such as a deliberately low-budget “rulebook,” entertains.
The team clearly put a lot of care into the visual aspect of the play, costuming it well on a budget, with particular kudos owed to Laura Vradenburg for the fantastical bird costume that was consistently fun to look at. The music running through the piece could have been chosen with more care; yes, most of it existed to simulate a circus atmosphere, but the vaguely cheery music undercuts attempts at suspense without really adding contrasting irony, either.
The real issue for me was the lack of a driving purpose behind the script. Though it turns out there is a coincidental connection between the bird and his eager audience, the framing of the story as a speech to a young girl feels unnecessary because we never learn anything about her. She’s merely a cute device to react to the bird’s story.
Even Arthur doesn’t get much character development beyond his surprising intelligence; he doesn’t have a great deal of agency. Instead of concentrating on that character development, or why this story was being told, most of the play consists of extended routines with the stock, two-dimensional characters that feel like digressions.
I found myself wondering how this play would have worked as an extended monologue, where we learn more about who Arthur is, and get some richer descriptive detail into his wild adventures. Desmond Baxter as Arthur is quite charming in his bluster, and I think he could have carried the show on his own wings. Kelly McDowell also fares well as the tentative but kind tightrope walker with a vulnerable smile.
Arthur J. Peabody is an ambitious show that wants to fly free, but it feels currently caged in by its own format.
- Arthur J. Peabody is playing on-demand at the Virtual 2021 Toronto Fringe Festival.
- Purchase a $5 Membership to access the On-Demand programming on the Fringe website, then Pay What You Can to each show as you go, with the suggested price of $13 per show.
- Memberships can be purchased here. View the virtual on-demand show listings here.
- Accessibility notes:
- On-Demand shows: videos are closed captioned, transcripts are available for all audio content, documents are screen-reader friendly, and all digital images are provided with alternative text descriptions. These access supplements have been generated by the company and reviewed by the Festival. They may vary slightly from company to company.
- Fringe Primetime presentations will feature Auto-Transcribed Captioning.
- Content warning: This show is rated PG and contains a brief moment of pushing and an alcohol reference.
- Read all of Mooney on Theatre’s 2021 Virtual Toronto Fringe Festival coverage here.
Photo of Desmond Baxter by Kelly McDowell.