Despite the fact that it's loaded with puppets, the play doesn't have the direct simplicity of a show for children. In fact, the plotting is rather complicated, and there are issues of violence, language, possible incest, and nudity that might offend and/or surprise parents with young kids. On the other hand, the show certainly has the look of a live-action cartoon, and it's extremely fast-paced and playful. Let's call it a sophisticated family entertainment and leave it at that.
The original story of The Green Bird is by Carlo Gozzi. We're seeing a translation by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery that has then been staged--and thereby re-imagined yet again--by Julie Taymor. It's a kitchen-sink crazy comedy with elements of everything from Shakespeare to the Three Stooges. Certainly the underlying plot, with lost infant twins who are eventually reunited with their parents, fairly reeks of Shakespeare's comic construction.
But The Green Bird plot suggests something more like Shakespeare on acid. There is a weird soothsayer (Reg E. Cathey) who is trying to ingratiate himself with the evil queen (Edward Hibbert) in order to get himself written into her will. There is a beautiful, if aging, princess (Kristine Nielsen) buried by the queen 18 years earlier in an ancient bathroom under the palace. She is fed by the magical green bird (Bruce Turk) that flies a secret route through the palace pipes to reach her. He does this because he's in love with the princess's lost daughter, Barbarina (Katie MacNichol) who, with her twin brother Renzo (Sebastian Roche), has been raised these last 18 years by an oafish butcher (Ned Eisbenberg) and his wife (Didi Conn). Are you with us so far?
This is mostly background information that you glean early on. What matters most is that the twins leave their adopted parents and learn any number of moral lessons that are delivered in the cockeyed fashion of this colorful play. They learn the pitfalls of philosophy, wealth, vanity, and the vicissitudes of love. None of these lessons are heavy-handed; the tongue-in-cheek nature of the entire production removes any sense of preachiness.
Didi Conn gives a delightful Gumby-like performance as the twins' adopted mother, and Ned Eisenberg is a truly animated clown as their stepfather. Derek Smith, as a bumbling royal suitor unwittingly in love with his own daughter, is also exceptional. In truth, the entire cast serves the play well. Julie Taymor's direction is fluid and designed for fun. Her mask and puppet designs are largely caricatured replicas of the real actor's faces, and the effect highlights the fantastical nature of the story. Constance Hoffman's costumes are as winsomely amusing as the set design (by Christine Jones); there is joyfulness in the very look of the piece. This is not, however, a musical, despite the credit for original music by Elliot Goldenthal. The Green Bird is a play with music, but it so much has the look of a musical that you have to remind yourself that the music of this work is less in the ears than in the eyes.