Dada Woof Papa Hot has as a primary theme the rearing of children, but during the production's preparations the care and feeding of another species is also going on: the house sparrow. In a corner of the rehearsal room, and providing musical accompaniment to work that is, strictly speaking, not a musical, is a bird.
“I found the bird four years ago, when we were doing The Normal Heart on Broadway,” said Patrick Breen, one of “Dada”’s actors, who is here using the first-person-plural because one of his current costars, John Benjamin Hickey, was also in The Normal Heart.
“I was living in the East Village at the time,” Breen explained, “and, one afternoon, near Ninth Street and Second Avenue, I heard this bird, screaming for help. It had been abandoned on the street.” He went on, “The bird was just a week or so old. If it had been left there, it would have died of exposure or been eaten by a rat.”
Unable to bear that eventuality, Breen took the bird to a nearby pet store. “The woman there said that her dad had raised birds,” he said. “She printed out a formula for me to use for feeding.” The formula consisted of honey, half-and-half, hard-boiled-egg yolk, and baby cereal.
Parents who complain about having to feed their infants every two hours have nothing on what Breen had to undergo with the sparrow chick: feedings needed to occur every 25 minutes. On Normal Heart matinee days, Breen would take the bird to the theater, and, when he was onstage, understudies would help with the nursing. Luckily for all of them, sparrows are diurnal – chirps of hunger do not occur at 3 a.m.
“I named the bird Janis,” Breen said, “because we were listening to a lot of Janis Joplin backstage.” Before long, however, as the bird regained its health, male feathers started springing forth. Janis transitioned to Janus. “Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions,” Breen said, or, in theater parlance, of entrances and exits, making Janus an ideal mascot for life behind the curtain – and thus, I hope, an auspicious subject with which to kick off an account of Dada Woof Papa Hot’s life backstage.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.