Despite inconsistencies, ‘Birds’ a suspenseful one-act
|Griffin Theatre presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories are de rigeur in pop culture. Perhaps part of their popularity stems from the very real threats of global warming, wastefulness and an Earth that might not be long for this world. Chicago winters seem to have gotten worse over the past few years – what other threats are to come? The Birds explores this existential fear, taking a cue from Daphne du Maurier’s short story that inspired Hitchcock’s iconic film. But with a modern story and characters, this Birds is vastly different from the classic movie. At its best, Griffin Theatre’s production builds a thoughtful sense of dread that runs through every line and action like a soft but strong bass line. At its weakest, it feels like a pale imitation.
As her largely useless voice-over explains in the beginning (and will do so throughout the play), Diane (Jodi Kingsley) meets Nat (Keith Neagle) when a road trip goes awry thanks to a murderous flock of birds that return every six hours. The two strangers break into an abandoned house, where Nat immediately falls ill. He’s barely recovered when young Julia (Emily Nichelson) happens across the pair, screaming for help. As the unlikely trio form alliances, scavenge for food and wonder when, and eventually if, the birds will go away, Diane begins to question Nat and Julia’s closeness – and her own power to change things for good.
This Birds was penned by acclaimed Irish playwright Conor McPherson (whose The Night Alive was recently produced at Steppenwolf). Though it possesses many strong moments – and works wonderfully as a tightly-paced 95-minute one-act – the script suffers from many inconsistencies. Nat’s past in a mental ward (thanks to an ex-girlfriend he calls “crazy”) is emphasized in the beginning and never brought up or indicated again. Julia appears to be in her late teens, but has a very mature way of speaking that comes across as laziness on the playwright’s part rather than precociousness. And again, Diane’s voice-overs read as amateurish and beneath a good company such as the Griffin. I’m not sure whether these were McPherson’s choice or director Kevin Kingston’s, but either way, the narration would be more effective if Diane simply steps out of the scene and addresses the audience live.
Nonetheless, Kingston and company manage to elevate the inconsistent source material to something eminently watchable and suspenseful. The staging gives off the perfect tension-filled arc found in the best horror movies, and Greg Pinsoneault’s set design is wonderfully claustrophobic. Eric Vigo’s lighting design is stark and deliberate, and sound designer Steve Ptacek knows just when to incorporate “Moonlight Sonata” for an extra dash of comfort that eventually turns creepy. Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes work well too, though one wonders how the three principal characters manage to stay so clean, despite squatting in an abandoned house with a noted lack of water.
Three of the four Birds actors give solid, intelligent performances. Only Nichelson comes across as whiny and shrill, with a shallow interpretation of what could have been the most interesting character (it doesn’t help that Julia is the most poorly written). At first a loose cannon, Neagle’s Nat evolves into equal parts father figure and gentlemen lover, with a good balance of masculinity and enigmatic edge. David Krajecki has a brief but memorable appearance as a pill-popping, rifle-toting neighbor with ties to the house. And Kingsley’s measured Diane leaves no aspect of the complex woman untouched: from well-intentioned mom to introspective writer to jealous harridan, the actress is always believable and sympathetic, even in Diane’s most nefarious moments.
As I reflected upon the show, I questioned why it’s called The Birds in the first place. Sure, the horrible creatures are aptly felt and heard throughout the play, and it’s stipulated that the show is based on du Maurier’s short story. The truth is, though, that most know The Birds as a Hitchcock film and may buy tickets expecting a more direct adaptation. This Birds would have been just as effective, if not more so, if the imminent threat had been another environmental factor that could wipe out the population. Did McPherson deliberately draw from The Birds (and its title) to sell tickets? Feels that way, and this unsettles me in a way that has nothing to do with horror.
The Birds continues through July 19th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $35, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at GriffinTheatre.com. (Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
Kevin Kingston (director), Greg Pinsoneault (scenic design), Rachel Sypniewski (costume design), Eric Vigo (lighting design), Steve Ptacek (sound design), Cassy Schillo (props design), Katie Messmore (stage manager), Shannon Rourke (assistant stage manager), Majel Cuza (production manager), Andrew GlasenHardt (tech director), Michael Brosilow (photos)