The Dodo Bird

Stage Actors Ensemble

By Gabrielle S. Kaplan

Emanuel Fried’s intense one-act The Dodo Bird explores what it means to live on the fringes of our society, to be a man who’s failed to achieve the American dream and ceased to live by the culture’s basic standards. The Dodo Bird represents those we often choose not to see: the guy with glazed eyes talking to himself walking down the street, carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, maybe asking for change. All these Dodo Birds came from somewhere, had parents once, maybe their own family, maybe a job.

In Fried’s play, set in a midwestern industrial town, the Dodo Bird is fortunate to work as a millwright’s helper, due to the kindness of millwright Russ Nowark, who keeps him on despite frequent hospital visits for the d.t.’s; the job is just enough to get by on. The story of how this particular human being reached this point of desperation and isolation is revealed during one evening in a bar across from the foundry, where the Dodo Bird is sober, washed, and waiting for a visit from his estranged daughter.

First produced in 1967, The Dodo Bird definitely reflects our times in this fine Stage Actors Ensemble production, which showcases Fried’s naturalistic writing, his ear for dialogue and knack for real characters, and his deep grasp of human behavior. Fried’s background provides some clue to his knowledge of the blue-collar world and the politics among factory men, which he used to create an authentic, emotionally rich play. Born the son of a Jewish businessman in Brooklyn in 1913, Fried lived the life of a bohemian, a blue-collar worker, and an academic: originally a professional actor, then a template maker and union organizer, he went on to get a PhD from the State University of New York, where he eventually became an assistant professor of English and wrote plays.

It’s no surprise that since Fried himself underwent dramatic transformations of his working identity, he makes the connection between occupation and identity a key theme in The Dodo Bird. The men here define themselves by what they do, and when their job is threatened in any way they become anxious and aggressive. The pecking order in the factory produces a pecking order outside–when Bull is bullied by his boss, he comes across the street to the bar to unleash his rage on an easy target, the Dodo Bird, who’s at the very bottom of the heap. The Dodo Bird lost his identity as a man and provider when the specialized machine he worked on became obsolete. The loss of his job led to the loss of his sobriety, self-respect, wife, home, and daughter. It’s clear from Fried’s writing that he knows these men, knows what their jobs mean in terms of pride, and knows the insecurity of a position at the bottom of the social ladder.

Jacqui Thomas, an actress and singer making her directorial debut with The Dodo Bird, clearly establishes the men’s relationships in her clean staging: she respects the timing of Fried’s script, his simple, straightforward dialogue and rising action. One of the dangers of this play is that the characters are big and could easily go over the top. Bull, for instance, is an Archie Bunker type who hates everything. Fried gives him moments when we can sympathize with him–because he’s overworked and stuck in the rut of his job and because he has brains–but an actor could easily turn him into a stereotype as his rage escalates (at one point he tells his barroom buddies that “the Nazis had the right idea…they just cooked the wrong people,” referring to the Dodo Bird, who’s within earshot). Fortunately Tom Herbstritt keeps him grounded, which makes Bull’s cruelty all the more frightening.

Bob Maram and Kenneth Johnson also play the subtlety in their characters, making them flesh and blood. Maram is Nick, the tavern proprietor who’s concerned about making his living off the men’s drinking yet sympathizes with their need to drink, and Johnson is Nowark, the millwright union representative whose kindness and sharp wit are the shreds of humanity that render this despairing play bearable.

But it’s Stephan Turner’s portrayal of the Dodo Bird that really makes the production work. A lesser actor could have turned this down-and-out guy into a bad midwestern Forrest Gump. Not Turner, whose unsentimental acting brings the Dodo Bird’s longings and loss to the surface in a vital and believable way. Especially in the last monologue, when he shares for the first time who he was years before, Turner’s Dodo Bird finds the last bit of strength that keeps him living. Turner’s monologue represents a rare moment of honesty in the theater, and it ends the play with a believeable bit of hope.

Fried’s The Dodo Bird should have a long life in our sink-or-swim society, where industrial jobs are becoming extinct. We need to recognize that the American Dream can’t be realized by everyone in a capitalistic society where service jobs start at minimum wage, just as we need to recognize our strange denial of those who become our “untouchables.” These struggles are the meat of our drama, eloquently expressed in the voices of Fried’s foundry men, whose worries and conflicts could be found in any American factory today.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo from “The Dodo Bird”.