Weird Fowl: The Swan

Jaime Kleiman reviews "The Swan" at the Jungle Theater (through March 11). She wonders whether ornithology at such close quarters would really be much fun . . .

the swan

There’s no getting around it: The Swan is a weird play. Really weird. Not weird in the “Edward Albee” or “Samuel Beckett” sense of the word. Just plain old weird, without anything that reveals something new or insightful about the human condition. The playwright, Elizabeth Egloff, doesn’t provide interesting characters or gripping dialogue. So much for that.

The play is set in Dora Hand’s house, which is located somewhere in the middle of nowhere, replete with nature, spiders, and ornery neighbors who garden. The plot is simple: woman wants love, pursues love, and eventually finds it, other people’s feelings be damned. In this case, Dora finds love in the form of a bird that spouts poetry and is given to fits of obsessive violence.

As usual, director/designer Bain Boehlke’s set is quite realistic. There is a real sink, a real refrigerator, and a real screen door. However, when the swan crashes through Dora’s window and the play veers into bizarre territory, it’s necessary suspend disbelief. As striking as the set is, such a surreal play does not warrant such a painstakingly accurate environment. In the morning, the swan—which Dora thinks is injured and has placed in a laundry basket—reveals itself to be a (very naked) man.

Nathan Keepers plays the marooned bird. Keepers is a thin, muscular man with superb physicality and the ability to convey a myriad of emotions in a single leap. He’s the heart of this play and the only actor who bothered to fully flesh out his character. This is saying a lot, considering he spends much of the first act wearing a thin white bathrobe, eating algae, and honking and hissing at Dora’s boyfriend, Kevin (Chris Carlson). It’s a testament to Keepers’ talent that he holds the thing together.

Dora, played by the wooden Jennifer Blagen, has a hard time pulling herself off the couch, getting dressed, and going to work. She can’t even find the wherewithal to pay attention Kevin, who worships her. She claims to be searching for love but has the attention span of a toddler. Why Kevin, who has a wife and children at home, considers Dora inviolable is a mystery that goes unsolved. Kevin pays her bills, promises her the world, and is continually ignored. Carlson looks perpetually strained and irritated, and it’s hard to tell if it’s because his character is thinly drawn or because, like the Swan, he’s flapping his wings but getting nowhere. Carlson and Blagen have zero chemistry. That doesn’t help.

The end of the play is confusing. Why do these men adore Dora? Is Egloff making some greater statement about how stupid people become when they fall in love? The climax—I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here—involves Kevin making plans to elope with Dora while she plans to fly the coop. So it is that Blagen dons a feathery wedding dress, gets struck by a beam of light from who-knows-where, tries to mimic Keepers’ physicality but instead looks like a seizure victim, and flies off into the night with her avian soul mate. (Boehlke uses a screen placed behind a window to convey the image.) Kevin is left broken-hearted with a lot of credit card debt and an angry wife. True love, Egloff implies, only shows its graceful neck at the unlikeliest of times. Why does Dora choose the Swan—who can’t fix light bulbs, pay her telephone bill, or bring over milk jugs at five o’clock in the morning—over Kevin? The world may never know. Like a relationship with a narcissist, The Swan is patently unrewarding.

It has been said that success and failures are not opposites, but sidekicks. From that point of view, Boehlke and Keepers might be commended for putting so much love into a play that isn’t really worth the effort.

The Swan plays through March 11 at the Jungle Theater. 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis. Tickets: 612.822.7063 or