Sunday, 18 March 2012

Guthrie Review - The Birds

The great thing about the Guthrie Lab is that they aren't afraid to take risks and are willing to take on projects that may be unpopular or controversial. This is certainly the case with their new production of The Birds. Based on the situation from Daphne Du Maurier's novelle, Conor McPherson's free-associative version crosses it with Night of the Living Dead to present a dark view of human relations under attack more from itself than the world outside. While the play has little to do with the Du Maurier story and even less to do with the film, it does share a certain connection in terms of the sense that the source of human tragedy is rooted in its connection to nature and to sexuality in general. The play starts in a cottage refuge with a middle-aged woman writer who is nursing a middle-aged man who has been attacked by swelling and aggressive swarms of birds. This unseen, but aurally threatening menace seems to attack with the incoming tide about every six hours. Later Diane and Nat are joined by a 16 year old street urchin named Julia, who may or may not be responsible for the death of another girl and who beautifully secretes the hyper-hormonality of teenagerdom combining apparent naivité and sexuality, innocence and a yet a certain depravity.

Some advisements are in order. The play is not like the Hitchcock film (nor should one expect a play to be like a film). "The Birds" contains some cursing (of the four letter sexual variety) and people in their underwear, so those who are easily offended should not attend. The profanity is completely appropriate for the subject matter and motivated and I personally did not find it excessive (although others I know who saw the play did). It is not vioent in a physical sense of the word. The only bird we see is a dead one that gets kicked off the doorstep (and one only sees it if one is seated on the extreme left.) Otherwise, the scariness of the attacks is rendered by psychological means and by marvelous sound effects and thumpings on various parts of the set and shutters.

The acting and the direction in the production are brilliant. I want to say this at the outset. The production is marvelous and the set is perfect (and quite carefully produced for a lab play where minimalism is frequently the rule of the day.)
Angela Timberman plays the rational and nurturing older writer with gravity and grace. J. C. Cutler gives us a man who has had relationship and mental problems (perhaps) and who with his white t-shirt and tattoos screams working class schlub.

Summer Hagen exudes just the right amount of waify "desire to please" or at least to manipulate combined with the selfish determination sometimes found in sixteen year old girls.

...and Stephen Yoakum (not unexpectedly) completely steals the show with his welding-masked, shot-gun toting old farmer across the way - a man who can fulfill his material needs, but is lonely for human and sexual companionship.

My complaints are directed against the play itself. One expects post-apocalyptic inventions to be dark and to distill human frailty down to its essential elements: it's essential elements, not its essentialist ones. The play is thought-provoking. It ends with a bang and a whimper, but it also seems to reduce human beings to the sum of their biological underpinnings. Without wanting to ruin the play for those who might want to see it (and it should be seen), I would still like to mention the conclusions that seem intrinsic to the play's ending. (So stop reading here if you worry about spoilers.) My primary quibble is with the fact that woman are ultimately secretive and manipulative. They are jealous of each other and either valuable in the procreative scheme of things or they are not. Men are equally pathetic for although they are much more open (or perhaps superficial) about their motivations, they are ultimately (and seemingly uncontrollably) victims of their need for control and sexual desire. So without completely giving away the end, I will simply say that I am dissatisfied at a play which makes older women and intellectuals manipulative and soulless beings willing to do anything for their purposes. The result is to make it seem that others (and men in particular) are necessarily the victims of manipulative young sex-pots but that everyone is even more at risk from the educated and from the only seemingly nurturing crone.

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