By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Diane (Gayle Pazerski) nurses Nate (Nick Mitchell) back to health in an abandoned cottage after fleeing from an avian attack in Conor McPherson’s “The Birds.” Even if you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, it’s easy to figure out what’s going on here. The birds have turned away from worms, and they are going after humans. The world is in tatters. People are hiding from their former feathered friends. Diane and Nate are scavenging on scraps, living a hard-scrabble life at the end of the world as the bird assaults continue. Life is far from idyllic, but when they meet another survivor, Julia (Sara Ashley Fisher), their tumultuous predicament becomes even more chaotic.
“The Birds” starts with the basic premise from Daphne Du Maurier’s eponymous novella, but veers off in a different direction. Diane, through a series of voice overs, elucidates the audience with tiny morsels of exposition, just enough to get the gist and capture the craziness of the situation.
It’s called “The Birds” but it’s not really about the birds. The attacking creatures are superfluous. They could be werewolves, zombies or marauding elephants. It doesn’t really matter. It’s really about the humans and their varying reactions to their unusual circumstances. Diane, Nate and Julia are forced back into primitive routines, hunting and gathering. Then, even more primal instincts take over. The play plays with the age old aphorism, “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.”
The plot plods along slowly, but the characters are compelling. Diane’s diegetic musings gently push the story forward. The voice over narration would have been more impactful if Pazerski if they were spoken and not recorded.
Mitchell is cast in two roles, Nate and Tierney. In some productions of “The Birds,” Tierney is played by a separate actor. Mitchell’s Nate is terrific. He is a flawed man with very real foibles. It’s easy to sympathize with him. It’s a great performance. His performance as Tierney is not as nuanced. The character is gruff and coarse but Mitchell hits it a little hard to overcompensate for his normal congenial personality. It would have been a great walk-on role for an older actor.
Pazerski is flawless. She plays Diane with tight mannerisms and cool aloofness. A great deal of the play rests squarely on her shoulders and she handles it with aplomb.
To say Julia is moody, is a massive understatement. She’s just left of crazy. You never know which way the character is going to go. Fisher is downright frightening at times. There are several shifts of allegiance in “The Birds,” and when you sympathize with Julia’s plight, you realize McPherson’s genius.
Director Vince Ventura relishes the moments where he spooks his audience. He plays up all the eerie elements. The set is masterfully designed by Hank Bullington.
Sound Designer Angela Baughman set the mood with some frightening bird noises, lightning and bestial howls. Lighting Designer Andrew David Ostrowski conveys additional creepiness. It was fascinating how the time of day was expressed by the lighting, early morning, mid-morning, afternoon, evening and the middle of the night were all illustrated perfectly by Ostrowski’s talents.
“The Birds” may cause nightmares, but it’s a thrilling, trilling show. Get your tickets now, everyone will be flocking to see it.
“The Birds” is at the University of Pittsburgh Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here.