Austin Playhouse's Summer and Bird

This world premiere production gives audiences of all ages the chance to travel to a mythical land of wonders

Madison Palomo (l) and Sarah Chong Harmer in Summer and Bird (Photo by Lara Toner Haddock)

Fairy tales are allegorical. They deal with more than just the plot at hand, symbolizing deeper human issues crying to be figured out. Like a good poem, these tales offer a space to ponder and dream.

Summer and Bird, the new theatre for youth production at Austin Playhouse, is no different. Based on the middle grade novel of the same name, adapted by its author, Austin's own Katherine Catmull, the surface story of the play is also a common fairy tale trope. Two young girls, the first named Summer (Sarah Chong Harmer), the next Bird (Madison Polomo), wake up one day to find their parents missing, with just a mysterious note left behind, written in what a former age might be called hieroglyphics, but what today's kids will recognize as emoji.

As the two girls struggle to understand the message, let the interpretations begin. Summer and Bird's mother (Jen Brown) is no mere human at all, but also part swan, one whose white, sheddable coat is stolen one day by their father (Robert Deike) and locked away in a closet. At the hands of the evil Queen Regent (Amber Lackey), who desires the coat for herself so she can become Queen of the Birds, the girls are manipulated into searching for their parents in the "down" world, each encountering her own journey of discovery, loss, and resilience along the way.

My favorite thing about the production is the incredible layers of puppetry by Zac Thomas that reaches far beyond normal children's fare: beautiful, bespoke mask work in the form of the Owl; prop birds that spin and flap on the ends of a clear umbrella; a Chinese dragon snake; and even shadow-puppet play projected on the back wall. At times, I just wanted to watch more of that splendor and to think less about the plot, which is sometimes convoluted even for an adult like myself.

Prior to the play beginning, the children in the audience are instructed to look and listen carefully, to not talk, so everyone can understand just what is going on. But the beauty of these allegories is that it's almost impossible to fully comprehend what's going on, whether you pay full attention or not. Do we interpret the family's eventual split and parting at the end as a gentle nod to divorce, where both children must now navigate two different homes and identities, now forever uncontainable in one place? Do we read the father's theft of the mother's coat, as that familiar yet still poignant pain mothers feel surrendering their lives to their families, until that moment they can resume them again, picking them up like so much discarded clothes?

I swear: I looked, I listened. I didn't speak, but even I'm not totally sure.

That's okay, though. The beauty of costumes and colors and characters enraptured me. One of my favorite moments didn't happen on the stage at all, but in reaction to what was happening on it. A wiggly little boy next to me in the audience asked his mother loudly, "Is that bird real?" As staged by Artistic Director Lara Toner Haddock, Summer and Bird gave me – and him – the opportunity to travel to a mythical land of unreality, where phoenixes, like children, always rise back up from the ashes. Inevitably, no matter what the allegory means, there's something comforting in that, isn't there?

One more plus: Austin Playhouse is committed to providing inexpensive theatre to families. Children get in free to Summer and Bird, and adult admission is by suggested donation only. For this reason alone, I suggest parents and children take a trip to the show and enjoy puzzling it out together. Or just experience the wonder.

Summer and Bird

Austin Playhouse at ACC Highland, 6001 Airport, 512/476-0084
Through May 12
Running time: 1 hr.

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Austin Playhouse, Theatre for Youth, Lara Toner Haddock, Katherine Catmull, Sarah Chong Harmer, Madison Palomo, Jen Brown, Amber Lackey, Robert Deike, Zac Thomas

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