‘Grief Is the Thing With Feathers’ Theater Review: Cillian Murphy Takes Flight

Enda Walsh adapts Max Porter’s novel into a nightmare of a play that exhausts, but in a fascinating way

Richard Wagner’s crows warn Siegfried too late. Alfred Hitchcock’s crows attack schoolchildren out of vengeance. Ralph Bakshi’s crows mock and ridicule because they have nothing better to do. To warn, attack and mock — the Crow does all of those things and more in Max Porter’s novel “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” which has been adapted into a play and directed by Enda Walsh. “Grief” had its American premiere Sunday at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Cillian Murphy is both the Crow and Dad, the widower-father whom the bird attacks one night in his home shortly after the death of his wife. In a tour de force performance, Murphy is at one moment dealing with his grief like a normal person and the next he’s wearing a big black hoodie and speaking into a small mic attached to the sleeve that miraculously turns his mild tenor into a booming, menacing bass. He recalls Ghostface from the “Scream” franchise but achieves his effects without use of a mask.

His two young sons (the excellent child actors David Evans and Leo Hart) roll out of their bunk beds shortly after the Crow attack, and one of them wonders why there’s a big black feather on his pillow. Except for that sinister hint of something awry, the boys go about their daily routine, a bit oblivious to their father’s dark hallucinations. The audience certainly is not. In addition to that bulky crow costume (by Christina Cunningham), Walsh and his projection designer Will Duke envelop Dad’s cavernous loft apartment (set design by Jamie Vartan) with ink scrawlings that eventually turn the white walls pitch black.

Dad is the Crow, of course, and that feathery alter ego eventually scares, mocks and leads the father back to some semblance of a normal life.

Along the way, interesting things about this suddenly all-male family emerge. One, they need a woman to tame them. The boys have a real violent streak. They reminisce about going to the beach one day where they smashed a guppy with rocks. They also take a rifle to shoot crows. Equally uncivilized, they leave their stage home in an utter mess by the play’s conclusion.

Dad isn’t just any dad either. The death of his wife has interrupted work on a book he’s writing titled “Ted Hughes’ Crow on a Couch: A Wild Analysis.” It points to violence in Dad as well. Among the intelligentsia in the U.K., he has a reputation for being “pro-Ted,” while most everyone else, especially the women, hold the poet responsible for abusing his wife, Sylvia Plath, to the point of suicide. Shortly before Plath killed herself, Hughes beat her, causing a miscarriage. Just like Dad and his dead wife, Hughes and Plath had two children, although one of them was a girl. The similarities between the real and the fictional aren’t exact.

The Hughes/Plath references in the novel might come off as pretentious. Seeing Walsh’s adaptation, you will find them necessary signposts to hang on to amid the obscure ramblings of the Crow. The bird speaks like a fool in a Shakespearean tragedy (only crazier), much easier to read on the page than make sense of hearing in the theater. The advantage of “Grief” live is Murphy’s alternatively scary and comic performance, as well as Duke’s projections, which include elegant cartoons of crows and ill-shot home movies of the family.

How Dad’s wife died should not be revealed here. It’s mentioned only once in “Grief,” and briefly. The important thing is, Walsh and Porter never resolve the tension between Dad and his writing project.

There are many 90-minute plays that come off as extended sketches. “Grief” is one of those that can’t sustain beyond 90 minutes because it exhausts. The Crow is impossible for Dad to live with, and after an hour, the bird has worn out his welcome with the audience as well. That takes us only an hour into the play, and the far more relaxed final third is a blessed relief. This isn’t a criticism of the play and its amazing production; it’s purely intentional on the part of Porter, Walsh and Murphy.

“Grief” is a Wayward Production in association with ComplicitĂ©.

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