Playwright: Erin Courtney. At: Cor Theatre at Rivendell, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. Tickets: 866-811-4111; www.CorTheatre.org; $25. Runs through: Feb. 14
Are birds happy harbingers of pleasant days and flights of fancy? Or are they figures of foreboding a la Poe's raven and Hitchcock's flocks?
Mark, an adult gay man, carries a tiny wood statuette of a meadowlark, which he stole at 12 from a man who was sexually abusing him. Sarah, a married young artist, has bird tattoos. Serendipitously, almost mystically, Mark ( Will Van Vogt ) and Sarah ( Mallory Nees ) meet twice without saying a word, the first time in a café which is swarmed by birds. Eventually, they strike up a friendship.
For the first 25 minutes of A Map of Virtue, they narrate their story directly to the audience, assisted by an actor playing the bird statuette ( Scottie Caldwell ) and giving each scene a title: Curiosity, Loyalty, Empathy, Honesty, Integrity, Love and Intuition. One quickly sees these are author Erin Courtney's Seven Virtues, different from the traditional Christian Seven Virtues.
Then, in the middle 25 minutes, Mark, Sarah and Sarah's husband, Nate ( Nick Mikula ), are kidnapped by June ( Eleni Pappageorge ), whom they meet at a party, and held captive for several days by June and her partner, Ray ( Adam Benjamin ). They are subjected to psychological terror and real violence until they are rescued by Mark's lover, Victor ( Ruben Adorno ). June and Ray then immolate themselves, destroying in the process the bird statuette, which had been left behind.
In the final 25 minutes, Mark, Sarah, Nate and Victor try to make sense of their relationships and what has happened to them. They do so by narrating directly to the audience and reversing the sequence of named virtues, as author Courtney attempts to soothe the shocked nerves of her audience and recapture the poetic, almost-whimsical essence of the play's first one-third.
It doesn't work for me. Captivated and drawn-in by the opening gambit, I was completely alienated by the vicious and random middle section and was not re-engaged by the closing section. It's a fact that we live in a world of random and appalling violence, and perhaps that's Courtney's point. There's no explanation for Hitchcock's' birds, and no explanations of June and Ray. They are barely two-dimensional as characters, but even Mark and Sarah are scarcely deeper, and that's a big problem.
The actors give it their all. With director Tasha Fowler they clearly have worked out motivations and reasons why, which aren't apparent to the audience. They play with commitment and full emotional engagement and surprising subtlety, especially Van Vogt. The simple stage setting ( Tierra G. Novy ), woven with stabiles of origami birds in flight, provides a dark but pleasant neutral background. But A Map of Virtue mystified me. The radical change of tone, the bird, the virtues? I don't get it.