Take a dash of Stephen King's Carrie, a splash of Edward Scissorhands, and a sprinkle of Greek mythology, and you have what is arguably one of the most original and unique productions to hit the local theater scene recently.
The Sparrow, a musical play opening this week at the Adrienne Arsht Center, is a daring attempt to bring what audiences normally see on television in the form of shows such as Smallville, or on the big screen in films such as X-Men, into a live setting.
"If anything is unique about it, it's in how heroic tragedy plays out in our modern popular mythologies," says Nathan Allen, The Sparrow's director and co-author, along with Chris Matthews and Jake Minton. "I'm a big nut for Joseph Campbell," Allen adds. "I have always been interested in his ideas described in The Power of Myth and The Hero With a Thousand Faces."
By Nathan Allen, Chris Matthews, and Jake Minton. Directed by Nathan Allen. Through May 1 at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $50.
"Follow your bliss" was the mantra the American mythologist taught as a writer, teacher, and lecturer before his death in 1987. And Campbell's influence — which has affected pop culture and modern storytellers from George Lucas to Neil Gaiman — can be felt in this play, imbued with myth, allegory, teen angst, and the supernatural.
Conceived and originally performed by the House Theatre of Chicago, where Allen is the artistic director, The Sparrow tells the story of Emily Book, a girl who has returned to her hometown ten years after a tragic school bus accident took the lives of her entire second-grade class, leaving her the lone survivor. Now, looking to spend her senior year attending the town's high school, she must come to grips with being not only the awkward outsider but also a constant walking reminder of the dreadful events of a decade ago.
Emily is bullied, mistreated, and cast out. But she also hides something: She has supernatural powers. In its simplest form, The Sparrow is the tale of a teenage girl who conceals a big secret as she tries desperately to fit in and runs from the shadow of a devastating and life-changing event. And while her special powers are unknown to everyone in her rural town, there are other mysteries Emily might be concealing.
The play was born out of what Campbell called "the monomyth," a basic narrative pattern that shares a fundamental archetype with other stories. In this case, the narratives with which it finds common ground are more modern, making The Sparrow a sort of Spider-Man meets Mean Girls. But Emily's journey is one that Allen says also finds roots in classical genres. "Plot- and story-wise, it's almost classical Greek, Shakespearean heroic tragedy," he says. "There's a whole lot of early Steven Spielberg in there. Obviously some Smallville. And Carrie too. But plot- and story-wise, it's almost straight Edward Scissorhands."
The marriage of the play's sci-fi plot line and theatrical music comes from Allen's adolescent influences. He grew up on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, while pouring himself into anything Spielberg and Jim Henson put out in the multiplexes. And then, as Allen puts it, "MTV happened." There was the rock rebellion of Bruce Springsteen and Nirvana, as well as Allen's love of all things related to space aliens and superheroes. Fuse all of that together and you get a myth-steeped musical play that explores small-town American life, loss, moral ambiguity, and the anguish of needing acceptance, with a protagonist who has superpowers.
"I find that good myth spoken in a primal — rather than political — language really has the ability to get lots of otherwise different people to laugh and cry together at the same time," Allen says. "And live theater devoted to that effort makes for the very best kind of community-building. That catharsis can be incredibly profound for people. And when it happens, we realize just how rare it is. There are precious few places where that's really possible, certainly outside the arts."
That's what the House Theatre of Chicago is all about — exploring the experience of catharsis. Like most of its plays, The Sparrow gleans inspiration from American and Western mythologies, and it seems to have hit that mark when it debuted in the Windy City in 2007.
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Chicago's Daily Herald described it as "a play about finding release from grief and guilt, about forgiveness." And the Chicago Sun Times called it a "three-dimensional graphic novel... that makes the emotional themes pop — from notions of grief, guilt, and the strange power of the outcast, to the passion of family and community life."
Bringing the production to Miami, Allen says, is a dream come true. "We get to rehearse a play we love and perform it somewhere sunny!" He has high hopes for The Sparrow's run at the Arsht.
Joseph Campbell advised to follow one's bliss. Good thing for theatergoers, Nathan Allen did.