If one of the main functions of art is to illuminate and share the deep and varied emotions of the human condition, which I believe it is, then Darrell Shipley’s How to Feed a Pterodactyl illustrates this function beautifully. An autobiographical one-man show about taking care of his mother who suffered a very serious brain injury after an accidental fall, Mr. Shipley manages to very effectively convey the intensely chaotic mass of emotions surrounding that incident with tenderness, strength, grace, and surprisingly, humor. In just over an hour, as I sat in the small, intimate theater, I laughed, I cried, and I reflected.
I thought of my own father and the time before his death. While completely different from Darrell and his mothers, the shared humanity of an ill and dying parent drew me into the story, in large part a result of the conversational and personal nuances of Mr. Shipley’s writing and performance. Little moments in time, which could often be overlooked in the relentless marching on of life, were distilled and presented, like beautiful glass ornaments, coming together to sculpt a complete picture of this one special relationship. Those details also served as invisible threads tying together the hearts and varied memories of each audience member- we have all loved, we have all lost, and we all have a story.
With mastery of his craft- slight postural and kinesthetic shifts and changes in accent and vocal tone to portray the different characters in this event- Mr. Shipley conveyed a lot in a short amount of time, distilling the poignant moments perfectly. When things got heavy, he made us laugh. Not uncomfortable laughter but refreshing, surrendering, cathartic and honest laughter.
Writing and performing in an autobiographical show about tragedy is not an easy thing to pull off. The dangers are coming off as dark, self-aggrandizing, saccharine or lachrymal. Or worse, being a semi-private homage to a person the rest of us do not know. How to Feed a Pterodactyl was none of those things. Quite the opposite in fact. I left the theater feeling happy, thankful, light, and like I got to know a very special person in a very special way.
“Everything in life is a choice.” Mrs. Shipley said to Darrell. “There is no such thing as ‘I can’t.’
I am at least one audience member who is glad he made the choice to write this story and didn’t let any ‘I cant’s’ stop him from telling it.