A solitary tune wafts in and echoes amongst the empty, open birdcages above the empty stage. Then it’s closer, a melody that sounds familiar even after hearing it once. Then you see him step in, whistling: it is a memory. It is now.
David Cale has created a piece of living theater based on his life. A master of commanding the room with minimum effort, Cale grips your attention from the first second. Without pretending the Public Theater is anywhere else but a place of performance, you still journey with him to 422 Old Bedford Road, to a house called the Pippin, where he grew up. And there you’ll let the ghosts in.
Cale turns into a young boy again, speaking with sparkly eyes and fervor about the shed he’d turned into his “bird and animal hospital” (by painting the words “bird and animal hospital” on the side of the shed).
Though it is a piece that’s been meticulously choreographed, directed (by Robert Falls), and designed (evident from the excellent underscoring and stage magic created), Cale’s performance still has the palpable joy of someone who’s sharing a memory for the very first time. This is especially so when he describes in great details the first bird he’s saved – a Rhode Island Red hen later named Henny Penny.
His is a story of a lonely child, occupying himself with an ineffable passion (more than 300 tropical birds flying about an English garden to be exact). We hear the familiar tune again, this time with lyrics by Cale and a six-piece orchestra. The words take flight and your heart is filled with Cale’s infectious voice.
But it’s not simply a cutesy tale of the performer’s bird-loving childhood. We stroll down Cale’s memory lane as he channels each member of his family. Gradually we uncover a past that is to say the least unusual, if not gruesome and traumatizing. We hear about Luton (the only northern town in southern England) and his family lineage of hat makers.
Cale’s body language has a quirky, awkward sort of charm and his timbre is warm: all the elements that make him instantly relatable. He shifts between characters with astounding control. We meet Ron, former alcoholic, describing his prison sentence as the happiest years of his life; we meet his mother Barbara, who speaks of falling in love with Ron (a skinny boy with big nose and intense blue eyes) because perhaps she had a thing for boys who looked like birds; she speaks of her choices that led her onto a path of no return, to a life that’s wrong for her. We are soaked in this woman’s longing, a woman who’s fighting for her life, and fighting to be noticed for something more than just working, cooking, sleeping. We also meet Simon, Cale’s younger brother, in a song about building model planes and being trapped inside one’s own world.
This is a common thread that binds this very dysfunctional family: each one of them caged in a fate forced upon them. When Barbara’s neighbor suggested that she went to art school, we hear this exchange.
“You’re very good at selling yourself short.”
“I know I am.”
Barbara could’ve been an artist; Ron could’ve done something different with his life, sober, rid of his cruel and manipulative father Jimmy Egleton.
Though the story is layer upon layer of sorrow and incredible turns, Cale plays each member of his family with sincerity. You start to fall in love a little with each one of them– even when you realize their villainous sides, even as the story turns, and something very wrong indeed happens. Each character remains sympathetic and Cale presents them with complexity without leaning too heavily on exposition.
The play has same kind of tenderness of when Cale was cradling a baby bird in his hands, breathing life into the infant who otherwise might not survive. Despite all the darkness, the writer performer recounts his personal history as someone who was made stronger by obstacles, and is able to look back with an open heart.
Without any change of costume or props, you see everything he describes in 85 minutes that fly by in a blink; you live Cale’s childhood through his words and eventually you’d want to run down the garden with him in the middle of the night, naked like the feral child he was, and sing along at the top of your voice to Liza Minnelli singing “Life is a Cabaret.”
It’s a mighty task creating a solo piece that’s so utterly vulnerable and without a single moment wasted. I’ve admired Cale’s ability to create the most captivating tale with seemingly mundane characters (Harry Clarke, which was performed by Billy Crudup recently at Minetta Line, as well as Lillian, which Cale performed), and his confidence in the audiences’ imagination. The words work their magic and the storytelling is well-edited, full of details but never redundant.
I’ve often wondered about the necessity of solo storytelling works being live on stage–perhaps it’s enough to hear the words on tape? In the case of this one, the presence of Cale makes all the difference. You connect with his history in a way that cannot be replaced by any other type of experience. There isn’t a single screen in the world, or recording, or VR that can do those memories justice. And during the performance, for a short amount of time, those people who are now dead and gone are indeed alive again. “I’m looking at you right now!” Barbara rejoices to the audience in Cale’s voice. Why else do we keep memories if not to keep the people we lost, alive?
There are very rare moments in theater when you realize you’ve been given a gift. We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time is one of those shows that will live in my heart for years to come.