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The Birds

8 Mar

Until all the rest come home to roost, let’s say this – Stephen Yoakam is electrifying as an actor. In his ten minutes onstage in The Birds in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, he packs in fizzing tension, wild, receiving-messages-through-the-aluminum-on-his-teeth madness and a cold-eyed survivalist instinct that make the rest of the 90 minute run seem slack by comparison. He is a live current through an otherwise soapy wash of human melodrama and spiritualist overtones, getting more out of a handclap than all the carefully choreographed sound effects. The fact that he does all this in his brief appearance as a deus ex machine flash of conscience and plot twist is indicative of the problems both in Conor McPherson’s script as much as it is a fault in Henry Wishcamper’s direction, restoring a promise that begins with the show but has flitted away by the end.

J.C. Cutler (Nat) and Angela Timberman (Diane). Photo by Aaron Fenster.

Forget Hitchcock and du Maurier, this new telling of The Birds is more indebted, as McPherson notes in his program interview, to George Romero zombie flicks and feels in a way like an inversion of the Alfonso Cuarón film Children of Men. In the Cuarón movie, no-one can have babies, inexplicably, so society falls apart. In McPherson’s play, nature has turned against us, inexplicably, but our ability to have babies, to reproduce and recreate and what it means to survive is still what drives the characters apart. The tension between Nat (J.C. Cutler) and the two women, the older Diane (Angela Timberman) and the younger Julia (Summer Hagen) turns on sexual desire and possibility, and sex is there, but it is introduced but not only glancingly explored. Cutler puts a glance of Nat’s sexual desire towards Diane in their first big scene together, but then it slips away as the an sense of everyday tedium is attempted to be established.

After Julia has established her presence with a mix of ingenue eagerness and teenage petulance, Diane has a line remarking that she doesn’t know if Julia considers them her parents or competition. It’s more of a note by McPherson to himself than an actual observation, something that could feed the morally ambiguous moves we make and our Darwinian maneuvers while trying to survive, but instead comes off as petty, which is where it also ends up. When Hagen appears in a scene midway through the play in a wedding dress, spouting verses from Ecclesiastes, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better,” the play seems to be jumping up and down in an attempt to point to spiritual meaning, but the silence, tension and space needed for the ideas to develop, for the fear to build and sink in, for us to be shaken to our core, isn’t there.

Compounding this conceptual fluttering around is the use of voice-overs, once in the opening moments and then more frequently in the second half of the play to let us into Diane’s head. The conceit of Diane as an author would seem to make this a serviceable choice, but instead, the voiceover simply forces Timberman to sit, stand, look pensive and so on in a mime of tension and madness. There are already immediate conventions that could have been used; that soliloquy thing has a good track record, breaking the fourth wall is a direct option, and both of those options at least keep the words in the mouth of the actors and offer us more engagement and buy-in, creating the complicity that McPherson mentions in his program interview.

This is not to say that the unseen voice can’t be effective, turning on PBS last week to the Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom of the Opera from Royal Albert Hall revealed that even in that hammy, overblown setting, there can still be something quite chilling about a disembodied voice – but that is over the top and The Birds is meant to be intense and personal. The voiceover feels like artistic shorthand and a technical copout. Here’s the really technical thing, though – the Dowling had been set with speakers at all sides to bring in some of the shock of the birds swooping in at all terrifying angles and yet the narration only comes through the speakers at front. Better, if the point is to consume us with contemplation of the eternal and god-like nature of power in all of us, to use the resources at hand to fill the room with that voice, to bring us in, disconcerted and discomfited. Artist Vito Acconci‘s 1972 performance piece Seedbed had the artist hidden, masturbating under a ramp while speakers throughout the gallery played a track of his sexual fantasies. How terrifying was that?

In his DVD commentary on Children of Men, political philosopher Slavoj Žižek froths, “Another thing that I immensely appreciate and this is an immensely risky thing to do, is to avoid sex. The fertility is a spiritual fertility, it’s to find the meaning of life and so on, so these are the reasons for my admiration of the film. Precisely because it doesn’t make a political, moralistic parable and so on and so, it works, perfectly.” The inverse happens on the Dowling stage. In The Birds McPherson attempts to tie infertility to spiritual infertility, survival to emotional shortcomings and to look cool doing it. Like the vanity of Ecclesiastes, it is sowing seeds in rocky soil; the ideas don’t take root and the play doesn’t take flight.

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