Songbird by Upright Egg Theatre Company at Nimbus Theater

Upright Egg Theatre Company has opened a company-created show set in a steampunk world laced with dozens of metaphor fragments about love and loss, manmade machines versus nature, lower versus upper classes, beauty versus functionality.

But that doesn’t really tell you what to expect. In Songbird, written by Brian Watson-Jones, Inventor Zebulon Volt finds himself at odds with the world of his mechanical inventions and the world of Queen Victoria’s court—the steampunk genre’s favored era. “I must work,” he repeats, although he is clearly the only one who cares. When the mourning Queen Victoria is comforted by a brown bird singing nearby, the court is obligated to either find the bird or find a replacement to lift the monarch’s spirits. When the real bird is elusive, the professor is approached to create one for her. This is only accomplished when he allows a beautiful woman – a naturalist – to help him make the bird sing.

It is about the clash between absolutes – or at least one absolute (the professor) being at odds with society, generally, and with a charming woman, specifically. They love each other, of course, but he has chosen the way of machines and will not coexist with the natural world. The irony is that the songbird he creates cannot sing without her help.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” the story is a little loose, but this performance is more about how than what, the entertainment factor being in the inventive way they portrayed so much with so little, swooping on and off with set pieces – I mean pieces of the set – and assembling them as part of each new scene with highly choreographed movement, accompanied by accordion, bass guitar, keyboard patches and real, live acoustic sound effects. That was  fun; I recommend you sit house right.

The set pieces themselves were steampunk all the way – in particular the professor’s rolling chair which collapses flat in one last symbolic act. (This won’t spoil it for you.)

And there are shadow puppets (designed by Matt Riggs), which were nicely done, although I didn’t understand most of the shouted lines from behind that sheet.

But the inspiration for all of this must have come from the “songbird” itself – in the original story, a nightingale replaced by a mechanical bird, which breaks down and cannot save the dying emperor – in this case, a fading empire. It has steampunk written all over it.

An ensemble cast, ably directed by Mark Benzel, has offered us a novel, thoughtful and imaginative take on a timeless theme: Anissa Brazill, Kristin Foster, Kate Gunther, Martha Heyl, Brian O’Neal, Larissa Shea, Josh Vogen, with musicians Lewis Kuhlman, Peter Schultz, Paul Shallcross and Ross Charmoli.

Songbird runs through June 25th at Nimbus Theater in its new Northeast location.

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