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Attack of 'The Birds' at American Stage

Remember that scene in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, when Tippi Hedren led children past a playground, where dozens of crows perched on a gym set, waiting to peck their eyes out? • Well, forget it during American Stage's season opener The Birds, loosely adapted by Irish playwright Conor McPherson from the Daphne du Maurier novelette Hitchcock mostly ignored. • Same species, three different sorts of terror. • McPherson's The Birds is a psychological horror story, 15 scenes of muted tension in close quarters while death flaps its wings outside. As in so outside that nary a bird will be visible on stage, in stark contrast to Hitchcock's bloody-beak swarms attacking.

The horror is intended to be in the audience's collective eye, through lighting manipulations, insinuating feathers and a battery of speakers strategically placed in Raymond James Theater for scare tactics.

"I hope we can scare the bejeezus out of them," director and sound designer Todd Olson said, calling this production — only the second staging of The Birds in the southeastern U.S. — his "guilty pleasure" of the season.

"We have some tricks in store. ... There's lots of evidence of the birds, and it's a pretty active soundscape. We're putting in more speakers, doing more with sound in that room than we ever have before. The idea is that the audience is caught in the house with these people."

Actor Richard B. Watson added: "I don't think it's going to be passive in this room, (with the audience) just sitting back to watch."

Watson plays Nat, who along with Diane (Roxanne Fay) are brittle survivors of this unexplained birdemic, strangers sharing a farmhouse and scavenging supplies. A third survivor named Julia (Gretchen Porro) shows up, making Diane suspicious of her intentions, especially after unsettling words from the farmer (Joseph Parra) across the lake.

What birds could do to any of them isn't as scary as what they might do to themselves.

"It's the stakes that matter, what happens when people get pushed into a corner so far," Olson said.

"In this story, the question is: 'Are we capable of murder?' The answer is yes. Those are the kinds of stories that work best in our theater, which is in a corner, so I love finding those stories about people really stuck and having to fight their way out."

As dissimilar as the original story, Hitchcock's movie and McPherson's play are, they're linked by the paranoia created by being invaded. For du Maurier it was the early 1950s, as England reeled from World War II bombing raids and the Red Scare. Hitchcock's version suggested these bird attacks were punishment for the societal rise of aggressive women, like the one Hedren played.

McPherson's "boogeyman" is human nature itself, how moral lines shift as situations become increasingly dire.

"(These characters) are all exceedingly moral," Fay said. "I don't think that excludes anything they do. That's the problem with someone who does something heinously wrong; they think they're doing the right thing."

In that respect, The Birds has less in common with Hitchcock's movie than with George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, with monstrous behavior occurring both outside and inside the house. There can be compelling drama between bejeezus-scaring moments.

"After taking these people apart, strand by strand and moment by moment, all of their motivations are pretty logical," Olson said. "There are certain question marks in the air, but they're there in the juicy sense … that great gray area."

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.

Birds of a macabre feather

Birds kill. It's a simple idea that an author made allegory, a movie director turned into visceral horror, and a playwright squeezed into an evening of unsettling theater. Here's a peek at the artists behind each dissimilar version of The Birds:

DAPHNE DU MAURIER (1907-1989)

Watching a Cornwall, England, ploughman being harassed by sea gulls inspired Daphne du Maurier to write The Birds. The short story became her third work adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, after 1939's Jamaica Inn — which both held in disdain — and the 1940 Oscar winner Rebecca. The Birds was the first time Hitch clashed with du Maurier, who didn't appreciate his wholesale changes to the plot and setting. Her story centered on a farming family in Cornwall shortly after World War II. Birds turn hostile for an unknown reason; that mystery isn't solved in any version of the story. Hysteria sweeps the countryside, as the attacks increase in ferocity.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK (1899-1980)

The master of suspense jettisoned du Maurier's allusions to wartime bombing raids, moving the action to the California seaside village Bodega Bay. No surprise, given Hitch's cine-fetish for icy blonds, that the lead role went to newcomer Tippi Hedren, playing a wealthy socialite too chic for comfort. She gets blamed for bringing on the bird attacks, even when she's the one being pecked. Hedren's experiences making The Birds, including alleged inappropriate behavior by Hitchcock, were detailed in 2012's HBO movie The Girl. The Birds opened to mixed reviews yet grossed $5 million, a top-20 box office finish in those days. By literally presenting birds attacking, Hitchcock turned du Maurier's reading-room dread into jolting cinematic shocks. Hitchcock's The Birds is showing Oct. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Tampa Theatre.

CONOR McPHERSON

(1971-present)

The Dublin-born playwright pares down the grisly touches of du Maurier and Hitchcock. Even the cast is condensed: four anxiety-driven characters compared to entire villages of victims. McPherson's play is that of a gifted artist flexing his chops, after Tony nominations for Shining City and The Seafarer. "Some of the most exciting playwriting these days is coming out of Ireland," The Birds director Todd Olson said, noting American Stage performed McPherson's The Seafarer in 2010. "I was really intrigued by his going back to the original du Maurier short story, kind of starting again, which is basically what Hitchcock had to do, too."

Steve Persall, Times staff writer

If you go

The Birds

The play runs through Oct. 27. Regular performances: 8 p.m. Friday ($59 opening night), Wednesday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. Preview performance: 8 p.m. today. $29-$49. American Stage Theatre Company at Raymond James Theater, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529. americanstage.org.

Attack of 'The Birds' at American Stage 10/01/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 11:47am]
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