By Donna Herman
“The Birds” by Conor McPherson is based on the 1952 Daphne du Maurier short story of the same name, and on which the famed 1963 Hitchcock film was also based. Du Maurier set her short story in a small town in Cornwall, England but both adaptations are set in America. McPherson sticks most closely to the du Maurier story and sets his play in a small New England farm town.
When the play opens, Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia), a woman in her late forties, tells us in a voice-over that she and Nat (Tony Naumovski), also middle aged, have met on the road during the first bird attacks and taken shelter in an empty house they broke into. She says Nat is sick and she has been nursing him for two days while he has been sleeping through “a restless delirium.” Immediately, a confused and naked Nat roars onto the stage. He has woken up still in the grip of a disturbing dream about someone named “Sarah.” He believes Sarah is trying to leave the house and he must stop her, and he mistakes Diane for Sarah and roughs her up a little before she gets him under control. When Diane gets him calmed down and back into reality, they begin the process of getting to know each other and assess their situation.
They quickly realize they’re in this alone and there’s no help coming – this is the apocalypse. If they’re going to survive it, they’re have to be smart, resourceful, and fearless. They figure out the pattern of the bird attacks, when it is safe to go outside and forage for food, and how long they have outside. They start fortifying the house against the ever more persistent and vicious attacks. Is there anybody left alive out there? They pore over maps and try to figure out if they could make it to the nearest town and back in the roughly 6 hours daily between strikes. And of course, they start forging a bond. Who are they each? Can they be trusted? Can they be lived with?
Then Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) arrives in a flurry of screaming humans, squawking birds, and blind panic. A young woman in her twenties, she’s in a halter top and short shorts, a bandage around her head, tottering on high heels that are too big for her feet. She is exploring the room, playing the tape recorder whose batteries Diane and Nat usually conserve, smoking a cigarette, going through their carefully hoarded store of food. Diane comes in and there is immediate tension. She lets Julia know that batteries need to be used only to try and find news broadcasts, not play music, she requests that smoking not happen in the house. Julia is repentant and grateful for being taken in and recounts some of the nightmare she has been through since the bird assaults have started. How she managed by staying in a school then a factory, until she was attacked by drunken men, then angry birds and had to keep moving.
It’s a world gone mad outside, and Julia’s arrival completely upsets the tenuous balance of the world inside that Diane and Nat have managed to build. How is this going to play out? Can the human race survive this attack by Nature and not turn on itself? Can we rise above our elemental natures?
However, this production of Conor McPherson’s 2009 play “The Birds” by Toronto-based Birdland Theater is where the rubber meets the road. Now playing as part of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival at 59e59 Theaters, the director, Stefan Dzepardski, has chosen to stage this production in a small black box theater with the audience on all four sides and on the same level as the stage. Not groundbreaking theater craft in this day and age, but it is a very particular choice. No traditional set with a backdrop that will convey place and condition visually and viscerally. So you need to find other ways to impart the playwright’s intentions that are perhaps less literal, but equally impactful. This is Dzepardski’s area of interest. His bio says he focuses on “interdisciplinary stage practices at the cross section of art and technology.” Unfortunately, in this particular case, I think he was a little more enamored of the technology itself than of its contribution to the production.
I was seated in a section where the audience had their backs to the wall on which David J. Palmer’s video projections were shown. If the projections were meant to replace the specific stage directions throughout the play that indicate when doors and windows are open or closed, boarded up or broken through by pecking birds, it was lost on my entire section, and a lot of two other sections that were sitting at right angles to it. The stage is simply the space in the middle of the room with seating in four sections surrounding it. So there’s no set per se – no windows, no doors. It was not clear to many people (my guest included) where characters were going to, or coming from, when they exited or entered the stage. Several important plot points rest on those distinctions.
Although the actors do a good job of portraying the frustration, fear, mistrust and occasional boredom of their situation, because the lack of visual cues, the tension of the continuing menace is simply not there. The play becomes an intellectual exercise rather than a visceral experience in fear and empathy.
“The Birds” by Conor McPherson, directed by Stefan Dzepardski
WITH: Antoinette LaVecchia (Diane), Tony Naumovski (Nat), Mia Hutchinson-Shaw (Julia)
Set design by Konstantin Roth; video design by David J. Palmer; costume design by Kate R. Mincer; lighting designer, Kia Rogers; sound design by Ken Denio; stage manager, Robert Neapolitan; Presented by Birdland Theatre; artistic producer Birdland Theatre, Zorana Kydd; at 59e59 Theatres, through October 1, 2016, to purchase tickets call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org.