My mother accompanied me to the opening night performance of The Birds at the Guthrie Theater, and as we stood in line for the celebratory post-performance buffet, Mom mentioned an interpretation of the play’s events that cast one of the characters in a much more sinister light than I’d expected—but that made perfect sense. “How’d you figure that out?” I asked Mom.
“Well,” she said as she took an Angry Birds napkin, “I do read more mystery novels than you.”
Maybe I just didn’t have a suspicious enough mind for Conor McPherson’s 2009 play, but McPherson leaves plenty of room for interpretation regarding the characters’ motives and the truthfulness of their statements. The play shares source material—a 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier—with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 film, but compared to Hitchcock, McPherson dials down the Man vs. Nature conflict and amplifies the conflict between Man vs. Man. (Or, more precisely, Man. vs. Woman vs. Woman vs. Man.)
In McPherson’s script, the birdpocalypse has begun as the lights go up on Nat (J.C. Cutler) and Diane (Angela Timberman), who have come together and boarded themselves up in a house to protect themselves both from the mysteriously aggressive flocks of fowl that come in six-hour waves and from the roaming bands of human survivors who have turned increasingly desperate. Nat and Diane—both middle-aged, and strangers to each other until forming a bond for survival—are eventually joined by the beautiful young Julia (Summer Hagen). As Mom said, “Two women and one man—you knew that wasn’t going to work for all eternity.” Complicating matters is a second man (Stephen Yoakam), a neighbor who’s boarded himself up with no company but a loaded shotgun to keep him warm.
In The Seafarer and Shining City, two scripts given superb productions by the Jungle Theater in recent years, McPherson showed himself masterful at writing tense drawing-room dramas with supernatural twists. Here, though, he stumbles. The short play—just over 90 minutes, without an intermission—is episodic, with the actors jumping through a decathalon of stage business in a sequence of short scenes. Voiceover narration taken from Diane’s diary shows up in a few scenes, further distracting from the onstage dynamics. Further, we’re given a torrent of information about offstage shenanigans occuring both prior to and during the several-week timespan of the narrative, such that by the end of the play there are too many moving parts and loose ends to tie up satisfactorily.
Still, there are some good seeds to peck at here, and director Henry Wishcamper gets a few of them. Wilson Chin’s detailed but economic set very effectively draws the Dowling Studio audience into the characters’ claustrophobic quarters, and evokes a sense of the threatening world beyond using many of the same tricks that worked well for Bain Boehlke in the Jungle’s McPherson joints. Sound designer Scott W. Edwards deserves billing equal to the actors for the eerie din he creates to represent the show’s eponymous hordes. (Though: what’s the deal with the heavy thumps? Are some of the angry birds fat penguins?)
It’s an unapologetically gothic script, and if a person is ever to be excused for having a histrionic moment, it’s when she’s horny, hungry, and in danger of being pecked to death—but even so, Wishcamper pushes his cast dangerously close to the Joey Tribbiani school of acting. These aren’t 14-year-olds who’ve been grounded from Tumblr, they’re grown men and women facing the end of the world as they know it, and a touch more gravitas might have been appropriate. Yoakam comes off best: deadly serious and praying he’s not yet completely mad. The others all have their moments, but all in all, this avian No Exit smells more like Brynza than brimstone.
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