Make us your home page

Review: 'The Birds' should embrace fun beneath the grim

Jokes don't leap off the pages of Conor McPherson's doomsday play The Birds, so why was a portion of opening night's audience quietly laughing at American Stage's production?

The laughter couldn't have been releasing tension since the play was barely under way. Once that silence in the seats is broken, it gives tacit permission for little of what happens on stage to be taken seriously, when McPherson's play is deadly so. (A Times reader who attended the next day's matinee described a similar experience.)

Perhaps the amused brought expectations of Alfred Hitchcock's mordantly humorous take on Daphne du Maurier's story about homicidal birds. The playwright, like Hitch, ditched everything in du Maurier's grim story except the idea of avian invasion, which Hitchcock turned into grisly fun. McPherson keeps the birds outside while trapped people figuratively peck each other toward death. Not cheery stuff at all.

Director Todd Olson obviously takes this stressed, identifiably Irish material seriously. Not one of his core trio of actors can be accused of over-milking the laughs McPherson does offer, mainly in the context of a drunk scene. The fourth cast member is an exception, and possibly a signpost for the direction future performances of The Birds could take. More on him later.

As with all versions of The Birds, there's no explanation of why birds are suddenly attacking humans, driving two survivors into an abandoned farm house, boarded-up and spookily adorned by scenic designer Jeffrey W. Dean. The front door splattered with bloody feather pulp is a nice gruesome touch. Olson's sound design regularly fills the small theater with angry squawks and flutters, while backstage hands thump the scenery, mimicking the sound of kamikaze crows.

The male who certainly isn't alpha is Nat (Richard B. Watson), nursed back from delirium by Diane (Roxanne Fay), an author of note. They have established a platonic partnership, scavenging for food when bird attacks subside, and generally putting up with each other. Diane keeps a journal of her thoughts, which are dark and getting darker, presented by Fay in voiceover, her face made stern by a splash of spotlight overhead.

The routine is shattered by the arrival of Julia (Gretchen Porro), an example of the too-abrupt shifts in McPherson's plot. The Birds is presented as 15 scenes with varying time passed in between, so for this younger threat to Diane's standing to suddenly appear in scene 5, ingratiated in the household, is a narrative speed bump and not the only one.

Such a stop-and-go structure hinders cultivating tension. Olson doesn't help by inserting an intermission McPherson never intended, at the exact moment when a genuine terror element is introduced. He's Tierney, a nearby farmer played by Joseph Parra with a druggy gleam and grunts punctuating each suspicion. In a single scene Parra roars menace that intentionally amuses, and audience gratitude could be sensed.

So, my suggestion would be for American Stage to embrace the fun McPherson didn't write that obviously lurks beneath the grim. Enable laughter and terror to go trembling hand-in-hand. These are exemplary actors Olson has at his disposal for the next three weeks, and perhaps only a few lifted eyebrows or inflections can flesh out what audiences already sniff about The Birds.

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

.if you go

The Birds

The play runs 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Through Oct. 27. $29-$49. American Stage Theatre Company at Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529.

Review: 'The Birds' should embrace fun beneath the grim 10/07/13 [Last modified: Monday, October 7, 2013 9:24pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for Oct. 18


    Dali and Schiaparelli: Opening Day: A retrospective exhibit of designer Elsa Schiaparelli and her collaborations with Dali. It features gowns, accessories, sketches, objects and photos, as well as new designs from the House of Schiaparelli. Remains on display through Jan. 14. 10 a.m., Dali Museum, 1 Dali Blvd. …

  2. Fresh figs take a starring role in this fig cake


    Figs are showy fruit.

    They can't help themselves. Even the plainest, drabbest fig will reveal a scarlet belly, flecked with shimmering seeds, once you take a bite. Whether they're sliced or halved, arranged in a tart shell, on a crostini or just on a plate, there are few visions more enticing. This is why most fig …

    Chopping fresh figs and folding them into cake batter is not something you usually see, but that’s exactly what happens in this recipe for fig cake.
  3. As Faith Hill and Tim McGraw come to Tampa, here's why their love fascinates and endures

    Music & Concerts

    Eight years ago, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill stood on the sidelines of Raymond James Stadium, waiting for Hill's cue to perform America the Beautiful before Super Bowl XLIII. He held her hand and they kissed as the Steelers, Cardinals and a television audience of 150 million waited in the wings.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw perform during the “Soul2Soul” World Tour at Staples Center on July 14 in Los Angeles.
  4. From the food editor: Five things I'm enjoying in the food world right now


    Sometimes your notebook is scribbled with little thoughts here and there, things you come across in the food world and want to share but aren't sure how or when. Well, folks, I need to get some of this off my chest. Here is a somewhat random collection of culinary things I am really enjoying right now:

    Espresso Sea Salt Cookie Sandwiches with a cooked buttercream frosting, from St. Petersburg home bakery Wandering Whisk Bakeshop. Photo by Jennifer Jacobs.
  5. Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins: Yacht rock paradise at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday

    Music & Concerts

    Frosty wine coolers and a misty sunset sea breeze. White linen pants and a tilted captain's hat. Coconut milk and an awful lot of rum.

    Kenny Loggins performs during Little Kids Rock Benefit 2016 at Capitale on October 5, 2016 in New York City.