Review: “The Birds” (Hell in a Handbag Productions)

Show: The Birds

Melanie Daniels (Catherine McCafferty) sits and waits as the birds attack in Hell in a Handbag's The Birds.   Photo by Rick Aguilar
Melanie Daniels (Catherine McCafferty) sits and waits as the birds attack in Hell in a Handbag’s The Birds.
Photo by Rick Aguilar

Company: Hell in a Handbag Productions

Venue: The Berger Park Coach House

Dice Roll: 17


Hell in a Handbag’s revival of their immensely popular The Birds was an excellent outing this past Sunday evening. I’ll admit to going in with some skepticism of how the company would translate this most Hitchkockian film into a stage play. In sum: I was tickled by the style and intelligence, and especially the affectionate hilarity, playwrights David Cerda and Pauline Pang bring to the table.

First off, you don’t have to have seen the film recently to get a kick out of the show, but it’ll help you get all the in-jokes if you do. What I remember of the film comes from a TV viewing as part of a special Halloween block of local public access programming, circa 1989. It scared the bejeezus out  of me, and there were a fair few months that I eyed all avians with suspicion. Thus, I wasn’t quite clear on how such an effects-driven movie would translate to live performance.

Quite well. That’s how.

You’ll start the performance in the old manor at Berger Park as part of what looks like a studio tour. This is about the time when they had me:  you know, two minutes in. Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s assistant (played by Lauren Miller) guides you over to the “soundstage” – aka the theatre – in full tour guide fashion, and then continues throughout the show to represent the might of the Hitch. Once you’re in and settled, the show begins as though you’re onset, complete with lights, cameras, and action.

It’s interesting how quickly the audience segues from being a fly-on-the-wall observer to an integral part of the performance. Characters frequently address the audience in an almost cabaret style, interspersed with the more traditional story-telling of poor Tippi’s (Catherine McCafferty) descent into confusion as the film shoot winds on.

Complete scenes from the movie are interspersed with the externalized internal struggle between Tippi and the ever-present but absent Hitch, and they get downright spooky at times. This is also intercut with hilarious self-referential, but never mocking, humor at the base material as the actors, playing actors, comment on the action of the play.

David Cerda was clearly an audience favorite the night we went, and his Suzanne Pleshette as Annie Hayworth is hysterical. Yes, there are men playing female characters as women in this show, and vice versa, but what’s really fun is that an actor’s gender never gets in the way of the character’s gender. Quite the opposite, especially in the case of Ed Jones, who plays Jessica Tandy (yep, THAT Jessica Tandy) playing Lydia Brenner in the film. Jones gives a subtle performance as Lydia, and then goes one step further “out of character” in an “offstage” scene as Jessica Tandy. Most of the other characters are drawn with broad strokes, but Jones plays the worried mother in the film and the consummate professional offstage actress easily and  well.

And how, you may ask, did they tackle the complexity of the bird attacks? So cleverly – with rod puppets controlled by two designated puppeteers and various cast members. And, in fact, the whole building. Since there are actual external doors and windows, the production makes good use of them – staging scenes that go beyond the theatre itself into a much more immersive experience.

The script is outstanding, the performances are a hoot, and there are some surprisingly scary and sentimental moments in a production that hits the ground running and takes you on a wild and fun ride. Go see it!

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Seagulls attack, hilarity ensues! We need to talk about Tippi.

Dice Roll: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”