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The Gull Can’t Help It

Photo by Ed KriegerAt the time of its release, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, was blown out of the sky with critical buckshot, dismissed as further proof that the director was becoming irrelevant in Hollywood. I saw it a year later, on my 11th birthday, and remember being disappointed — sure, there were some scary parts, but most of the movie seemed to consist of long, boring scenes of tense grownups holding cigarettes and talking to each other from across a room. And what kind of ending was that — why didn’t the Army or Air Force come to Bodega Bay and blast all those gulls and crows away? Today, of course, The Birds forms part of the immortal trinity of movies, with Vertigo and Psycho, that we most readily associate with the name Hitchcock. In 1998, culture critic Camille Paglia published a monograph analyzing The Birds through a pop-cultural/feminist lens. (“Hitchcock sees the house in historical terms as both safe haven and female trap.”) You wonder why she bothered — most of the film’s subtext is so apparent that it’s practically become a living-room tradition to provide running commentary as the movie plays on our TV screens. If anything, the real question has been why hadn’t The Birds been staged live as a loving spoof, à la a verbatim homage like The Singalong Sound of Music or an abbreviated satire along the lines of Phoxes. TheSpyAnts theater company has answered that need with David Cerda and Pauline Pang’s 95-minute one-act, now running at the McCadden Place Theater.The Birds: A Tail of Ornithic Proportions is a crafty evening combining tribute, farce and feminist critique – with just the right sprinkling of camp. It’s a film within a play that searches for symbolic meaning in Hitchcock’s masterpiece even as it mocks such searches. The program notes tip us off to part of the game as we find actors doubling for such roles as “Worried Girl/Gull” while other parts are played in drag. Yet Cerda and Pang’s show, which premiered in Chicago five years ago, pushes the entertainment beyond an evening of cross-dressing and broad double takes. (Ryan Landry’s own transvestite sendup, The Gulls, appeared in 2003.) Underlining the onstage re-enactment of Hitchcock’s film is an examination of the auteur and his well-known twin obsessions for control and icy blond actresses — in particular, The Birds’ star, Tippi Hedren, whom he subjected to a grueling ordeal while shooting Evan Hunter’s script.The play opens as a Charlie “Bird” Parker melody fades from the speakers to be replaced with Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” while the lights come up on Paglia (Darcy Halsey) reading aloud from her book Sexual Personae. In a moment she’s on the phone speaking to Hitchcock’s ghost, who pleads with her to go back in time to become Hedren’s shrink on the set of The Birds. The film then unwinds onstage, beginning with the bird-shop scene, where Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels (Lori Evans Taylor) first encounters Mitch Brenner/actor Rod Taylor (Brett Hren). It’s a moment of oversexed innuendo that portends the incestuous twitches of Mitch’s mother, Lydia, played in the film by Jessica Tandy (Eric Bunton), and the twilight sisterhood of Mitch’s ex-girlfriend, Annie Hayworth (Maria Tomas).The narrative moves in and out from the film’s “reality” to the story about the making of the film. Hitchcock’s birds appear onstage either as feathered creatures yanked about with sticks and wires, or acted out with ensemble members in wing-and-beak outfits designed by Marina Mouhibian. This may sound hopeless, but the re-enactment of the famous schoolhouse scene alone, with the town’s children singing the folk song “Risseldy Rosseldy” as murderous crows mass outside, vindicates director Kelly Ann Ford’s choice.Those looking for over-the-top antics will not leave disappointed. Whenever the Annie/Suzanne Pleshette character appears, for example, she’s in the mood to rip Melanie’s clothes off. (Not surprisingly, when Paglia arrives on the set, she makes a beeline for Annie and the two become quite literally inseparable.) And so it goes with the smothering Lydia, a brittle Jocasta who is the widowed mother of a 33-year old son and 13-year-old daughter (Hal Perry), a woman ever on the verge of tears while pawing at Mitch.Today, the movie’s Annie and Lydia scenes are the funniest because they are the most transparent examples of Park Avenue Freudianism turned to pulp fiction. We knew from the moment Pleshette’s smoky eyes locked onto Hedren that Annie’s picket-fence gate swung both ways. The school teacher’s cottage (safe haven or female trap?), with its modern art and crowded book shelves, screamed defiance against the town’s staid farming community. And, of course, her shared cigarettes and brandy toasts with her temporary roommate, Melanie, posed the intriguing question, Is there such a thing as a pre-coital smoke?Director Ford responds to the film’s Annie and Lydia by having Tomas and Bunton ramp up their characters, if such a thing is possible. Tomas plays her role as an out-of-control Liza Minelli in a negligee, while Bunton comes across as a women’s prison warden. I’m not sure that’s the subtlest approach, although the other choice would be to underplay the roles, which may not work at all; and Cerda and Pang make the show’s goosiness go down a little easier with a couple of music-hall-style songs that inexplicably interrupt the proceedings.Hitchcock never appears in the play; instead, a sullen assistant named Peggy Robinson (Mouhibian) occasionally materializes to bark her master’s orders at Hedren. While sexually alluring in heels and tight skirt, Robinson obviously chafes under her brunette status as a second-class citizen in Hitchock’s world. Her lines are the playwrights’ most overt judgment of Hitchock’s personality; they also happen to be the show’s most stilted and bring it to a dead stop. The writers get their points across better through comic action, as when Paglia memorably demonstrates to Hedren that sometimes a handbag is not always just a handbag. Certainly, their play’s final moment, when Hedren walks away from the film, alone but independent, as the actor-crows watch, is completely gripping — and it occurs in total silence.Overall, TheSpyAnts have given us an intelligent romp nicely balanced between the ridiculous and sublimely ridiculous.The 15-member cast demonstrates both energy and discipline, with Lori Evans Taylor seeming to grow into her role as much as Hedren did hers, and Bunton turning in a wry performance that never goes too far overboard. Working with what seems to be a tight budget, Ford has marshaled some fine technical talents to give her production a sparkle far exceeding its means. Joel Daavid’s flexible set invokes a sunburst of weathered slats of wood and a skewed window frame to suggest the Brenners’ farmhouse, and readily lends itself to quick scene changes. Mouhibian’s costumes play with the idea that their wearers’ unruly bodies must be bound by repressive clothing; even Taylor’s blond wig, with its Novakian whorl, indicates the twisted, vertiginous Hitchcock universe. I recently had lunch at Bodega Bay’s Tides restaurant, built on the site of the diner featured in the film. There was Birds iconography everywhere — framed lobby cards from the film, autographed photos of some of the actors, a sign announcing a September appearance of Hedren. Like the Hitching Post restaurant profiled in the film Sideways, the Tides clearly enjoys the curse of pop fame. My parents, who had taken me to see The Birds 41 years ago, quietly ate the overpriced salmon, then showed me the Tides’ gift shop, which offered equally expensive DVDs of The Birds and some Hitchcock books.Since my long-ago birthday trip to the movies I’ve come to realize that The Birds was never a horror movie, camp commentary on fashion nor even the apocalyptic fable of Daphne DuMaurier’s Cold War–tinged short story. Instead, it was a glimpse of the adult world and what the duties of that tense world would entail — always looking over one’s shoulder, stuffing ashtrays with lost hopes and speaking to other adults from across a room. How lucky children are not to know a metaphor when they see one.THE BIRDS: A Tail of Ornithic Proportions | By DAVID CERDA and PAULINE PANG | TheSpyAnts at the McCadden Place Theater, 1157 McCadden Pl., Hollywood | Through August 28 | (323) 860-8786

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