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The Birds

Conor McPherson brings Daphne du Maurier's short story to the stage.

Mia Hutchinson-Shaw, Tony Naumovski, and Antoinette LaVecchia in The Birds at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Tippi Hedren does not appear, and it's best not to look for Alfred Hitchcock with a pair of white terriers. Even though it's called The Birds, Conor McPherson's 2009 drama, now receiving its New York premiere as part of the 1st Irish Festival at 59E59 Theaters, bears just about as much resemblance to Hitch's iconic 1963 film as both the play and the movie do to their original source material, Daphne du Maurier's 1952 short story of the same title. That is to say, none.

Du Maurier's work, first published in 1952 as part of a collection called The Apple Tree, was set in post-World War II Cornwall, where a farmer and his family gradually realize that the entirety of England is under attack by flocks of seagulls. Hitchcock retained the title and the concept, changing the setting to Bodega Bay, California, and turning the principal characters into a sexy socialite (Hedren) and a hunky lawyer (Rod Taylor).

McPherson takes a similar cue from the iconic filmmaker, retaining only du Maurier's initial idea —the world is inexplicably under siege by winged creatures. Taking place in a New England farmhouse in the "near future," McPherson's The Birds follows three very different figures as they attempt to stay alive and contend with the ramifications of their efforts.

Nat (Tony Naumovski) and Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia) are two strangers taking shelter together as the attacking birds peck at the walls like clockwork every six hours. Their only excursions to the outside world involve finding food and alcohol, both of which have become very scarce. With the arrival of a refugee named Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw), Nat and Diane's lives are thrown into chaos as paranoia slowly starts to set in.

Mia Hutchinson-Shaw and Antoinette LaVecchia play refugees Julia and Diane.
(© Carol Rosegg)

This iteration of The Birds isn't an explicit horror show, or even a psychological thriller. Here, McPherson, whose career as a dramatist has brilliantly encompassed both of those genres, explores the existential crises of three individuals at the end their lives. As the world is destroyed around them, will they accept that certain death is staring them down?

Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski, this production of Toronto's aptly named Birdland Theatre, is visually inspired by contemporary tales of the apocalypse. Kia Rogers' lighting is dim, Ien Denio provides menacing musical underscoring as sound design, and Kate R. Mincer's costumes could easily be worn on The Walking Dead. The set, by Konstantin Roth, and video design, by David J. Palmer, attempt to keep the goings-on confining, with spectators seated on either side of the cramped playing space.

Yet there's little that's actually claustrophobic. Dzeparoski's production comes off as neither sexy nor scary, two things that it desperately wants to be (despite the appearance of both full-frontal nudity and hazy fog effects to attempt to set the mood on both ends). Similarly, the acting is strangely detached throughout. LaVecchia, Naumovski, and Hutchinson-Shaw deliver performances that are remarkably calm in the face of an avian revolution — none of them ever actually seem worried that they could have their eyes pecked out.

The lack of tension isn't their entire fault though; it's not very present in McPherson's script, either. The Birds simply stays caged, when it really needs is to take flight.

Tony Naumovski and Antoinette LaVecchia in Conor McPherson's The Birds, directed by Stefan Dzeparoski, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Carol Rosegg)