Cloud Cuckooland is subtitled "a story about death," and it begins with its protagonist, the Girl (Cassandra Rosebeetle), at death's threshold, looking like a patient etherized upon a table as we hear her heartbeat and a voiceover that talks about the "blank space" underlying biology. The Jackdaw (Zahra Hashemian) picks up this thematic thread as she sings about dying being worse than being dead and compares ephemeral humanity to the eternal bird world. The Jackdaw and her companions, the Crow (Renata Bergen) and the Raven (Amanda Mottur), offer the Girl entrance to their avian empyrean, a chance for her to replace humanity's ungainly locomotion with feathered soaring. They present her with a contract (its terms an opportunity for some light comedy), something that any reader of fairy tales knows should be viewed with suspicion, especially when proffered by magical animals; the Girl must be dead and must embrace madness and reject her heart, and then she will ascend to the queenship of Cloud Cuckooland as the Phoenix. As in any good fairy tale, she makes the bargain, and we survey with her the birds' realm of madness and imagination. But is there only blank space under its surface beauty and apparent freedom, as implied by its denizens' avid hoarding of shiny objects set to the strains of a reimagining of Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie," and particularly when set against the depth of life associated with her heart, which continues to haunt her and by which she continues to be tempted?
The Desert Sin dance company, to which the performers belong, describes itself as weaving "narrative through movement while embracing the beautiful & the grotesque within ourselves," and Cloud Cuckooland certainly fits that description. Its loosely narrative series of segments, primarily wordless, provides the opportunity to showcase varied styles of music and dance. As the Phoenix is introduced to Cloud Cuckooland, for example, the elegant, balletic movements of storks (Angela Harriell and creator Djahari Clark) give way later to a section in which the upbeat calypso-inspired composition accompanying a pair of flamingos slows and distorts whenever they dip their heads below the waterline and we glimpse the undersea world. The physical performances are impressive throughout, but Sylvana Tapia, as the Heart/Vulture, delivers a couple of standout set-pieces with aerial silks, one of which is performed over pulsingly hypnotic electronica that shades eventually into strings. Cassandra Rosebeetle, in these scenes and elsewhere, is strikingly and fluidly emotive. If the second half of Balanchine's The Nutcracker featured the witches that Thomas Middleton wrote for Macbeth and were staged by Cirque de Soleil between performances and experimenting with burlesque, the result would be something like Cloud Cuckooland.
House of Yes is not a typical off-Broadway theatrical space, closer to one of Manhattan's repurposed, decayingly ornate live music venues like Gramercy Theater than a black box space, and that is integral to this production. The performance often spills off the stage and encompasses spaces both around and above the audience. With intricate, inventive costumes, athletic, expressive dance, and a sprinkling of puppetry, Cloud Cuckooland furnishes a diverting evening of spectacle (and the occasional bird joke). And you don't have to sign away your heart to see it. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler