"Parrot Talk" is returning the the Da Vinci Art Alliance in Philadelphia.
"Parrot Talk" is returning the the Da Vinci Art Alliance in Philadelphia. Louise O'Rourke

We’ve all heard parrots mimic the human voice, squawking out a greeting or asking for a cracker. But how well do the brightly plumaged birds understand the world that their limited vocabularies describe? How well, for that matter, do we?

That question is exemplified by Alex, the famed African grey parrot with a vocabulary of over 100 words who evidenced a surprising level of comprehension while the subject of a 30-year experiment by animal psychologists. Alex’s story inspired Philly playwright Julius Ferraro to write his new play “Parrot Talk,” which returns to Da Vinci Art Alliance this weekend.

“I got really interested in the idea of how animals experience the world differently to us,” Ferraro says. “Eventually I came up with the idea of a parrot that’s having its Descartes moment, discarding its assumptions and trying to figure out exactly who it is within the world it inhabits.”

At the heart of “Parrot Talk” is a deceptively simple story — a high-powered executive suffering from a long-term illness attempts to make her way to the grocery store. Along the way, though, she encounters a parrot — whether real or fever dream, it’s hard to say — undergoing its own existential struggle.

Language holds a primary fascination for Ferraro, who has written “Parrot Talk” in an outrageous dialect in which words no longer carry their familiar meanings, though new definitions and turns of phrase emerge through the course of the play.

“When language does unexpected things,” Ferraro says, “as an audience member, you suddenly don’t know what to expect. You’re pulled out of the things that you hear every single day. Because so much of the language is unusual and strange, you can really dig into it and find meaning or you can view it as nonsense. I want it to live somewhere in between, where it’s evocative and exciting.”

If you go:
Parrot Talk
April 28-30
Da Vince Art Alliance
704 Catherine St.
$15
parrottalk.bpt.me