Tennis, anyone? Kathleen Bosworth and Taylor Kasch are in a fowl mood in "The Birds." Photo by Brian Stethem Photography
REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
As a lifelong fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense-filled films, I was looking forward to the play version of Daphne DuMaurier’s 1952 novelette The Birds, mainly to see how it could possibly be done on stage. In Hitchcock’s 1963 film, the setting was transformed from post-World War II Cornwall, on the southwestern coast of England, to the sleepy Northern California town of Bodega Bay, where the film’s stars, Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, were menaced by marauding flocks of killer birds, in a surreal, apocalyptic world. In 2009, Irish playwright Conor McPherson adapted DuMaurier’s story for the stage, completely ignoring the characters of both the original book as well as Hitchcock’s version. Despite retaining the main theme of a bird-induced world calamity, McPherson’s play, which is being staged at the Santa Paula Theater Center, falls far short, despite winning performances by its four-person cast and some remarkably effective sound effects.
One must give credit to sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski for creating a truly horrifying Squawk-Surround audio soundtrack, with the sounds of shrieking birds enveloping the inside of the theater through strategically placed speakers. When you enter the theater, the bird sounds have already begun. As time gets closer to curtain, the flapping and cawing increases in intensity, and when the ushers begin closing the transoms (with great ceremony), a true sense of claustrophobia has been created, as we begin to identify with the trapped characters.
The story takes place in an abandoned cabin in an unnamed remote area somewhere off the coast of New England, where three strangers take refuge from waves of attacking birds that have apparently killed off most of the world’s population.
In the first scene, Diane, a middle-aged divorced novelist, switches on a boombox radio to listen to the news and we briefly hear the strains of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (by the Byrds, of course), whose lyrics were adapted by Pete Seeger from Ecclesiastes, a Biblical passage that becomes a central theme later in the play. The radio signal is soon obscured by shrieking bird sounds (how does that happen, anyway?) and the crescendo begins to resemble that of an electronic hurricane as the birds wage their attack.
Despite this promising start, the play goes downhill fast, descending into a meandering soap opera that somehow manages to put the birds on the back burner. The play consists of a series of brief scenes that indicate time passing, but unlike the Hitchcock film, the bird attacks are only hinted at. Instead, we get mired in the personal problems of the three main characters, none of whom appears to care about rising to the occasion to help their fellow man (or woman). Instead, they scavenge, leaving the cabin to loot other cabins of their food supply (wearing ludicrous motorcycle helmets for protection whenever they leave), without caring about finding survivors or maybe even finding some kind of vehicle and escaping. Since they don’t care for one another, neither do we, and by the end of the play, we’re thinking that maybe the birds should just get it over with.
Kathleen Bosworth plays Diane, the closest the play comes to having a protagonist as she reads her diary to the audience, providing us with some sort of context. Taylor Kasch plays Nat, whose frequent headaches result in him being a borderline psychotic. Nat’s crankiness makes one wonder why the vixenous Julia, played by Juliana Acosta, would have anything to do with him. She spends the first half of the play acting flirtatious and ditzy, then does an about face and becomes vindictive and nasty, without much reason. Rounding out the cast, Allan Noel has a smaller role as Tierney, a menacing, pill-popping, rifle-toting farmer who lives across the lake.
About that lake. The dialog clearly indicates that the cabin is located on or near a lake shore, but the characters are able to predict when the birds will strike next because they have been able to determine that the invasions occur at high tide. Since lakes do not have discernible tides, how do they know when high tide is? This is one of several head-scratching inconsistencies that makes McPherson’s story troublesome. We’re also not sure about the time of the setting. The cabin has a ’60s era rotary telephone and an old-fashioned wood-burning stove but the boombox is definitely more modern and at one point, Nat references “back in the ’80s or ’90s” so we are left to wonder when all this is supposed to be taking place.
We also don’t know if anyone in the world is still alive and whether these four pathetic people are the last survivors of the birds’ war on humanity. “As long as there’s kindness, there’s hope,” Nat says, which is telling, considering the self-preserving selfishness displayed by each of the characters. When Julia becomes pregnant, supposedly by Nat, her pathetic defense of the act – “the human race has to continue” – is one of the most ludicrous lines in the script. “What’s so precious about the human race anyway?” a resigned Diane asks the audience. Not if these four are its last remaining representatives.
It wouldn’t be fair to blame any of this on the actors or the production staff. A look at reviews of other productions of McPherson’s adaptation reveal tepid response to his play. The actors in Santa Paula Theater Center’s production do their best, but as the play drags on, we discover that McPherson’s tweetment has done what I thought was impossible, to make The Birds bereft of any sense of suspense, even in spite of the terrific sound effects. Given all of its problems, saying this play comes somewhere down the list on our pecking order of effective adaptations would be something more than just a cheep shot.
The Birds plays through July 30 at the Santa Paula Theater Center. Tickets are available at www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.
We learn that the attacks coincide with the tides, so the characters are able to prepare as each one approaches.