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A CurtainUp Review
The Birds
By Charles Wright

... your average gull is big! Four or five or six pounds in weight coming straight down out of the sky, easily reaching speeds of 40 miles an hour, can cause a tremendous amount of damage ... — Voice on the radio in Conor McPherson's The Birds.
The Birds
Tony Naumovski as Nat and Antoinette LaVecchia as Diane in Conor McPherson's The Birds. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
The tiny Theater C at 59E59 quivers with angst as the Canadian troupe Birdland Theatre offers New York an overdue premiere of Conor McPherson's 2009 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's short story The Birds.

Birdland, which presented Brendan Gall's interesting if misbegotten Wide Awake Hearts at 59E59 in January, now divides its focus between New York and Toronto. For this second New York engagement (part of Origin's 1st Irish Festival 2016), Stefan Dzeparoski, Birdland's Resident Director, has selected a compelling script that's well suited to the three company members cast in the play's four roles.

First published in 1953, du Maurier's story concerns Nat Hocken, a World War Two veteran, his wife, and two small children struggling to protect themselves and their Cornish homestead during a bizarre natural crisis. Birds — "crows, sea birds, robins, sparrows!" — are proliferating and turning vicious. Arriving in droves with the incoming tide, they attack humans with lethal beaks and talons; and, as time goes on, the marauding flocks are joined by larger, more powerful birds — seagulls, buzzards, hawks, kestrels, and falcons.

Du Maurier's apocalyptic tale has long been overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film in which Tippi Hedren contends with avian menace against a Technicolor backdrop of northern California. In their adaptation, Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Evan Hunter, not only transferred the action to America but also jettisoned du Maurier's characters and the details of her plot.

McPherson's drama, like the movie, features characters different from those in the story. But the stage play owes nothing to Hitchcock or Hunter. The Birds, as reimagined by McPherson and Birdland, pays homage to du Maurier in tone, atmosphere and overall effect.

McPherson made his name as author of one-person plays such as The Good Thief, and multi-character dramas that rely heavily on monologues, such as the psychological thriller Shining City (for review of last summer's revival with Matthew Broderick by New York's Irish Repertory Theatre go here ). In The Birds, the playwright has replaced du Maurier's Hocken family with Nat (Tony Naumovski) and Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia), both middle-aged and single, who meet in the course of the avian crisis and do their neurotic best to forge a supportive relationship in a deserted New England farmhouse. After a time, they're joined by the younger Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw), whose constant presence and erotic provocation exacerbate the tension in an already agitated situation.

Director Dzeparoski and scenic designer Konstantin Roth take advantage of every inch of performing space in the pocket-sized Theater C. Roth's set is simple and stark, and serves as a fine screen for video projections by David J. Palmer. Those projections, though eye-appealing, are more interesting than effective; and they're visible in differing degrees to spectators in the four sections of seating. Ien Denio's sound design, with its garbled radio signals and cacophony of wind, storm, and flapping wings, is unsettling — an ideal soundtrack to the anxious doings on stage.

The three actors handle with aplomb the challenges of performing in the round. The space limitations of miniscule black box space, places the performers even closer to the audience than usually anticipated in arena staging. This physical intimacy draws the spectator especially near (and almost into) the dramatic conflict; and it heightens the production's sense of apocalyptic horror to an unsettling degree.

Sixty-three years ago, Du Maurier created an us-versus-them tale that captured the anxious expectations of the Cold War culture of her era. McPherson's new, triangular narrative reflects the fragmented fears of latter day perils such as random acts of terrorism, climate change, and emergent viruses. What's on display at 59E59 is an intriguing amalgam of the late English novelist and her 21st century interpreter.

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The Birds by Conor McPherson
From the short story by Daphne DuMaurier
Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski Mia Hutchinson-Shaw (Julia); Antoinette LaVecchia (Diane); Tony Naumovski (Nat)
Set Designer: Konstantin Roth
Video Designer: David J. Palmer
Costume Designer: Kate R. Mincer
Lighting Designer: Kia Rogers
Sound Designer: Ien Denio
Stage Manager: Robert Neapolitan
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Produced by Birdland Theatre at 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street
Tuesday to Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8:30 pm; and Sunday at 3:30 pm (no performances Wednesday September 21 and 28 or Friday, September 23 and 30)
From 9/9/16; opened 9/15/16; closing 10/1/16
Reviewed by Charles Wright at press performance on September 11, 2016

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