The Birds at the Guthrie Theater, Dowling Studio Theater

February 29, 2012
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J.C. Cutler (Nat) and Angela Timberman (Diane) in the American premiere of The Birds at the Guthrie Theater. Photo by Aaron Fenster.

The Guthrie Theater has opened a tantalizing little show, familiar in name due to its famous film counterpart. “The Birds” by Conor McPherson is based on a post W.W. II novelette by Daphne du Maurier, and bears only a passing resemblance to the Alfred Hitchcock movie.

In this show, huge flocks of birds are violently attacking England at every high tide. Either the birds are killing all manner of living things, or in desperation the living are killing each other in a fight for survival. Little is left for three refugees from this horror stranded in an abandoned house near a lake. The real terror, we soon learn, is not the birds, per se, but rather how ordinary individuals deal with crisis.

The end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it “what-if” is a popular one among writers. This is understandable. It sets up all sorts of possible universal themes and creates scenarios where there are far more questions than answers. A playwright can make a little noise with that and a director (Henry Wishcamper, in this case) can have a heyday.

This is the case with this play. The real audience engagement is not so much with the occasional shutter rattling and roof banging by the crazed birds; it’s the questions that hang in the air about who these characters really are, what have they done, and what might they do next?

It’s fine to set up all this disquiet in the minds of the audience – that’s the fun of being scared – but the actors don’t have the luxury of that kind of ambivalence. The performances in this production succeed to the degree that we feel each actor knows the dark secrets of his or her character, even if we don’t.

J.C. Cutler plays the man-child, Nat. He may venture out to forage for supplies, but we sense from the get-go that he’s more interested in fishing about for the most reliable nurturer available to him. Angela Timberman as Diane obliges. She is needy and conflicted and Nat is – well, there. As puzzling as their dialogue is at times, we get the sense that they, at least, understand each other.

The duo gets a lot more interesting as a triangle with the entrance of Julia (Summer Hagen) who is a perky young blond with enough grit to make her a force, and enough sweetness to give her a veneer of vulnerability.

Stephen Yoakam appears as Tierney, the farmer who lives across the lake. I reviewed Yoakam in The Seafarer, also by Conor McPherson, and once again, I didn’t think of him as an actor playing a part, which is the highest compliment I have for an actor. He simply stepped into the scene and it was his. The only disappointment was that he was on stage for such a short time.

It’s a bit of a shock, actually, when he shows up because we’ve been conditioned to question anything the characters say. As it turns out, he is as real as any one of them, but whether or not we can believe him is no clearer than it is for any of the characters.

I recommend that you plan to go out after the show and have a lively discussion with your companions about just who did what to whom. That’s going to be a good portion of the fun of seeing this. The Birds runs through April 8. The show runs about an hour and a half and plays without intermission.

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One Response to The Birds at the Guthrie Theater, Dowling Studio Theater

  1. Marshall Hambro on May 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    This was an engrossing evening, but the play had no dramatic arc. Very fine performances from all concerned, and certainly worth the somewhat long, no-intermission sit. Again, wonderfully rendered characters.

    Marshall Hambro

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