Theater Takes Flight in “The Birdcage”

Green Room’s production of “The Birdcage” flew in for Family Weekend. Managing Arts and Living Editor Alex Brandfonbrener ’23 reviews the show, which aptly follows a young couple and the contentious union of their two families.

Theater Takes Flight in “The Birdcage”
Green Room’s production of “The Birdcage” flew in for Family Weekend. Managing Arts and Living Editor Alex Brandfonbrener ’23 reviews the show, which aptly follows a young couple and the contentious union of their two families. Photo courtesy of Maryam Abuissa ’24.

Family Weekend can be a tense time at Amherst College. Parents witness firsthand the reality of college life for their child. Likewise, students must show that they can handle it on their own — and that their  tuition is money well-spent.

But maybe the most awkward part of Family Weekend is the prospect of your parents meeting your romantic partner for the first time. Who knows what they will think, or if they will approve? I experienced such an encounter this weekend, when I connected with my partner’s parents over a meal at Arigato. Between silent moments of dipping sushi in soy sauce, we bonded over our shared interests. Thankfully, it was a nice time.

And so, perhaps I should be thankful that it didn’t end up as poorly as the meeting in Green Room’s “The Birdcage,” in which a young college couple decides to get married and must reconcile their parents — who are polar opposites. One pair is a gay couple who own a nightclub. The other is a hyper-conservative senator and his devoted wife. Chaos ensues.

The show premiered on Saturday, Nov. 5, in O’Connor Commons. Based on the 1973 play “La Cage aux Folles” by Jean Poiret, which has been adapted to both musical performance and film, the show contains blatant racist, sexist, and homophobic statements. The director of the Green Room production, Langston Prince ’25, acknowledged the potentially troubling content before the play began, but the script wasn’t notably unsavory for me. I appreciated the disclaimer nonetheless.

The play revolves around two families who appear to be radically different. Armond Goldman (Dylan Schor ’25) is the stage manager for his partner Albert (Kaisar Perry ’26), the star drag queen of their establishment. They bicker about almost everything, from Albert’s inevitable aging to their son Val’s (Freeman Rabb ’25) unexpected nuptials.

The other family is equally dysfunctional. Senator Kevin Keeley (Kobe Thompson ’24) is the head of the “Coalition for Moral Order,” a bigoted conservative group that is at risk of collapse because one of its leaders dies in the bed of a Black, underage prostitute. His wife Louise (Maxine Dobbs ’25) is steadfast in her commitment to him, but often bemoans his nonsensical rambling. Like the Goldmans, the Keeleys think that their 20-year-old daughter Barbara (Shreya Hegde ’26) is marrying prematurely. But eventually, both sets of parents decide to support their children and meet their new in-laws.

The plot piles on unbelievable circumstances, fueled by the desperate lies the young couple tells to the conservative parents. They convince Barbara’s parents that Armond “Coleman” (instead of “Goldman,” so that he doesn’t appear Jewish) is a “cultural attaché” to Greece, and that Albert is a housewife. The gay couple goes to great lengths to adhere to these falsehoods, even reaching out to Val’s estranged birth mother Katherine (Isla Steinman ’26) to play the housewife. Similarly, the senator and his wife must hide the adulterous scandal of the other “Coalition for Moral Order” founder, because they believe that the Colemans will judge them for it; Armond is a cultural attaché, after all.

The play uses this dramatic premise to support its humor, and some of my favorite moments came from the farce. Before the dreaded dinner party with the Keeleys, the couple's sincere and bubbly cook Agador (Revival Afolabi '25) helps them replace all of the gay decor in their apartment with a single, huge plywood crucifix. Yet they overlook their dishware, which is emblazoned with Greek male youths.

The comedic script was bolstered by the strong performances of the cast. All of the actors landed the punchlines with strong comedic chops, but two characters stuck out above the rest. Perry’s Albert was both rambunctious and over-the-top, but fragile. Of all the characters, he is most caught in the middle of the political tensions. He confidently struts across the stage as a drag queen, but struggles to appear straight for the dinner party. He practices being “just a guy” and bemoans that he must “embrace [his] masculine tendency for stoicism.” Eventually, he comes to terms with the fact that he is unable to do so. Perry’s outlandish performance made Albert undeniably funny, but also colored him as a character plagued by doubt and resentment.

Albert meets his match in the rowdy and rambling Senator Keeley. Thompson put on a thick, growly Southern accent that never failed to elicit a laugh from the audience. The voice gave the character a familiar quality that impactfully juxtaposed the character’s ludicrous behavior. The senator stumbles through speeches to the press, tells an absurdly boring story at the dinner party, and demands candy when he is upset. The senator is a patriarchal figure who nonetheless comes across as childishly sensitive.

And because Albert and Senator Keeley were so loud — filling O’Connor Commons with the sounds of their wails — they both served as squawking birds for the titular “birdcage.” The two characters felt like foils for each other: one a drag queen, the other a conservative U.S. senator. At first, I thought that this foil served to represent our country’s political divide. But the true difference between the two is more subtle: One is able to accept himself, while the other cannot.

So when Albert surprises everyone by entering the dinner party in drag as “Mrs. Coleman,” it feels only fitting that Senator Keeley is completely smitten with her. Some of the funniest moments in the play comes from the pair’s unlikely romance. When they discuss the untimely death of the other “Coalition for Moral Order” founder, Albert accidently slips up: “Who even hires female prostitutes these days?” The senator responds, unphased, “That’s just what Rush Limbaugh said!”

It all falls apart when Val’s birth mother arrives at the dinner party, and the truth comes out. The Keeleys initially disapprove of the Goldmans, but gain perspective when the senator is forced to dress in drag to hide from the press. All in all, I’m grateful that my Family Weekend meal went more smoothly than that.

“The Birdcage” is another reminder of the spectacular quality of student theater at Amherst. Even when midterms (both exams and elections) loom in all of our minds — even during Family Weekend — I personally find it motivating to see students devote their free time to the arts. So, if you’ve never seen a theater production at Amherst, take a chance and support your peers. I’m sure you won’t regret it.

Update, Nov. 11, 2022: A previous version of this article did not make mention of Revival Afolabi's '25 character. It has been amended to include her performance.