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Theater Fri Jun 19 2015

Griffin Theatre's The Birds Chills with Cabin Fever Drama

Keith Neagle (Nat), Jodi Kingsley (Diane), and Emily Nichelson (Julia). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Though well-known as a 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film, the story of killer birds attacking people and running amok actually comes from a novelette written by British author Daphne du Maurier in the early 1950s. Du Maurier's work is the inspiration for Conor McPherson's stage adaptation, The Birds, which makes its Chicago premiere this month at the Griffin Theatre Company.

The first question, invariably, that anyone would pose, is how do they depict the birds? If you were hoping for the campy spectacle of taxidermied crows dangling from the rafters by fishing line, terrorizing the actors, you're out of luck here. Instead, director Kevin Kingston opts to portray the titular birds off-stage, with sound and light. It's a choice all but necessitated by the medium, and it fits with this version of the story, as this isn't a madcap struggle against dive-bombing seagulls, but a No Exit-esque cabin fever drama.

We spend the entirety of the play in a New England cottage occupied as a refuge by Diane (Jodi Kingsley), a writer, who is successively joined by Nat (Keith Neagle) and Julia (Emily Nichelson). The three strangers, brought together by dire circumstance, fortify themselves, forage for food from nearby abandoned houses, and occasionally attempt to achieve some shred of normalcy in their new lives. Because the birds here are an unseen menace, it's easy to imagine this same scenario played out as a zombie movie, or a post-apocalypse survival story. The intrigue comes not so much from the extraordinary occurrence, but from the relationships that it induces, and the constant potential for betrayal that they beget.

There's always been an odd tone surrounding The Birds, in any iteration. It's a strange scenario. If there was a news story today about a flock of evil birds attacking a city, the reaction would likely progress from incredulity to stifled laughter to real concern. It's a silly premise, but once you imagine the brutal realities of being pecked to death by seagulls, it takes on a chilling edge. McPherson's version is a little unsatisfying in terms of probing the abnormality of the events transpiring. The characters generally refer to the birds in hushed tones, often refraining from using the b-word at all. This, again, calls to mind the regard for the undead in a zombie thriller, but here we're not so much dealing with something fantastical and grotesque, but rather an absurdity turned dangerous. The danger is well explored, the absurdity, not really. This leads to some slipperiness of mood in certain scenes, and some moments in which it's unclear whether the audience should be frightened or amused.

There's a lot of great interpersonal conflict here, and the twists and turns of the power structure within the barricaded cabin are well executed. Emily Nichelson's performance as a late addition to the trio packs a lot of suspense, skillfully keeping her loyalties and her angle mysterious, navigating a fairly bombastic character arc without resorting to melodrama. The Birds, the play, may not possess the crazy special-effects action of the film version, but there is more than enough psychological drama to keep the intrigue palpable.

The Birds runs 90 minutes with no intermission. The play continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., through July 19. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets for $30-35 are available online, in person at the Theater Wit box office, or by calling 773-975-8150.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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