“The bird dares to break the shell, then the shell breaks open and the bird can fly openly. This is the simplest principle of success. You dream, you dare and you fly.” Israelmore Ayivor
It’s oddly fitting this extraordinary piece of music/theater should arrive by way of 2019’s Under the Radar Festival. Though David Cale has been presenting iterations of his history over thirty years garnering Bessie and Obie Awards, he remains relatively unknown. Mark his name down.
The playwright/composer/lyricist/performer is as sensitive a channel for infectious emotion as you’re likely to encounter onstage; a perceptive storyteller and vulnerable, unfussy actor. Somewhat resembling the birds that pervade his tales, he shudders and jerks with feeling, arms mostly moving below the elbows as if controlled by wing joints. Hands twitch, long legs bend with accustomed stiffness. There are moments one almost believes he might rise into air.
Instead of creating representative characters, We’re Only Alive unabashedly relates Cale’s own survival tale. Raised in Luten, England “where the gray meets the gray/and it’s raining all day,” he tended to a backyard aviary of 300 birds while wretchedly, ill-matched parents screamed at one another. Affinity with his charges was so strong that when a cage door was accidentally left open, winged creatures returned of their own volition. People were not as dependable.
Cale inhabits himself and younger brother Simon as boys, an alcoholic father: “I gave him his fear of everything, his blue eyes, that spooked look he has sometime…”, and powerful, bully grandfather who made it clear the hapless mom he adored was not good enough for the family. Barbara Egerton (the artist’s surname) fought back as she could, worked full time, kept house, tried to lose herself in gardening, and suffered deep depression.
Transition is seamless, spirit-capturing role play without exaggeration. When ten year-old Cale runs through his garden naked “trying to seduce the fifteen year-old boy nextdoor,” we feel the wet grass beneath our feet, innocent exhilaration. Lyrics rise out of lush, haunting music like elongated haiku, chants, or hymns. Vocals are hushed, visceral. The artist always sang. It was his ambition to come here and be a singer.
As the play closed, I can reveal Cale’s father brutally murdered his wife with a hammer. Egelton senior came to trial and, greatly due to his young son’s seemingly parroted testimony, was given a light sentence by reason of temporary insanity. The victim was pilloried as unstable. A disreputable lawyer even tried to prove Mrs. Egelrton died of a heart attack before she was hit the first of thirteen times.
The artist expresses no guilt, but must feel it even though used by elders. A later attempt to be responsible for his shockingly unrepentant father (there are gasps from the audience) was predictably unsuccessful.
In 1979, David Cale arrived in New York with only a backpack. All he had of his mom was a few photographs and an unsigned birthday card. Their indelible bond is wonderfully conjured by actual incidents, the first in England, the second twenty-two years later in New York. He didn’t tell anyone for a long time. There are tears in my eyes.
Director Robert Falls uses his staging area without fostering a false move. The piece is kept intimate and real. We feel confided in. Physical emulation of particular characters is nuanced. Pacing is deft.
Musicianship is splendid. Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet creates atmosphere with hanging cages and plane models. Jennifer Tipton’s excellent lighting hides and reveals musicians’ silhouettes like a shadow play while symbiotically embracing mood.
“Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them, they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.” Stephen King
Photos by Joan Marcus
We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time
Written and Performed by David Cale
Lyrics – David Cale; Music-David Cale & Matthew Dean Marsh
Directed by Robert Falls
Music Director/PianoMatthew Dean MarshViola-Josh Henderson, Harp- Tomina Parvanova, Cello-Jessica Wang, Trumpet-John Blevins,Clarinet- Tyler Hsieh
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street