Review: ‘The Birds’ at Curio Theatre Company, in Philadelphia

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When you think of The Birds, you probably think of Tippi Hedren running for her life through the streets of a California town – a town inexplicably under attack by every winged creature within miles.

Aetna Gallagher and Tessa Kuhn. Photo by Rebecca Gudelunas.
Aetna Gallagher and Tessa Kuhn. Photo by Rebecca Gudelunas.

Well, you won’t see any attacking birds in Curio Theatre Company’s production of The Birds. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get scared. Director Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin’s production uses low-key theatrical magic to ratchet up the terror in insidious ways. It’s an engrossingly creepy experience that’ll get you in the perfect mood for Halloween.

While Conor McPherson’s play is ostensibly based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story – the one that also inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s movie – the three works actually have completely different plots, all set against the backdrop of a relentless, baffling mass bird attack. In McPherson’s version, we’re in a boarded-up house where two victims of the attacks – strangers to each other – have sought refuge. Diane is a writer estranged from her husband, while Nat has a history of mental problems. They strike up a wary friendship while making occasional reconnaissance missions into the nearly-abandoned small town that surrounds them, scavenging for food and supplies.

Eventually they’re joined by Julia, a young woman whom they have rescued from a bird attack. Julia’s elusive, erratic attitude leads to arguments and shifting allegiances between all three of the housemates. Is she as much of a threat as the birds themselves are?

McPherson’s script builds tension effectively in its first hour, but it devolves into a standard drama of jealousy, secrets, and recrimination towards the end. Diane and Nat are rather bland characters, though actors Aetna Gallagher and Rich Bradford give them a tough edge. And while Tessa Kuhn’s lively performance as Julia spices things up, the character is not a satisfying antagonist because her motivation is as mysterious as the birds’.

Director Carlson-Guerin serves up a nerve-wracking, immersive production that puts the audience in the middle of the action. After walking through the front door of a miniature house built in the middle of the high-ceilinged church sanctuary that Curio calls home, audience members sit on three levels of seating on the edges of Diane and Nat’s living room. Paul Kuhn’s set design is full of nice, lived-in touches; the wallpaper with silhouetted images of birds is an especially clever touch.

Aetna Gallagher and Rich Bradford. Photo by Rebecca Gudelunas.
Aetna Gallagher and Rich Bradford. Photo by Rebecca Gudelunas.

And thanks to Chris Sannino’s relentless sound design, you’ll feel as if you’re in the middle of a bird attack. (You’ll even feel the rafters overhead shake from time to time.) Robin Stamey’s lighting design is inspired, drawing nearly all of its illumination from candles and from light seeping in from between the slats of boarded-up windows. It’s so dark at times that it’s almost impossible to see the actors deliver their lines. That adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere that makes The Birds so chillingly effective.

Late in the play, a fourth character appears: Tierney, a neighbor played with a nice touch of menace by Ken Opdenaker. At the performance I attended, when Opdenaker made his unexpected appearance, a woman in the front row shrieked “Oh my God!”

That shriek was a sign that Carlson-Guerin and her crew are doing something right and special.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one intermission.

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The Birds plays through October 29, 2016 at Curio Theatre Company, performing at the Calvary Center – 4740 Baltimore Avenue, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 525-1350, or purchase them online.