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'The Birds' roosts at the Guthrie Theater

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Angela Timberman, The Birds
Angela Timberman as Diane, one of the two central characters in the American premiere of "The Bird"s at the Guthrie Theater.
Photo courtesy of Guthrie Theater/Aaron Fenster

Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1963 horror film "The Birds" unnerved the world with its tale of murderous avian attacks.

It's still a popular culture touchstone. However the movie strayed from the even darker issues of human nature that run through the Daphne du Maurier short story upon which it is based.

The U.S. premiere of a stage adaptation of "The Birds" opens tonight at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The birds in the show are never seen: only heard, and occasionally felt.

Irish playwright Conor McPherson is a friendly, cheery fellow with bright red hair and a happy smile. But when it comes to discussing his adaptation of "The Birds" things quickly get biblical.

"This play, it sort of in a way tries to blend Genesis and the apocalypse all at once," McPherson said. "It's like OK, so we are conscious, but all we are conscious of is the end."

McPherson is a rising star of Irish theater. His version of "The Birds" is set entirely inside a small dilapidated house in a scattered rural community, not far from the sea. Bad things are happening as the play begins. Every time the tide rolls in, so do huge, angry flocks of birds bent on killing anything and everything. Society has collapsed around the world. A man and a woman, strangers until now, shelter inside the house. And the birds keep coming.

The house fills almost half of the Guthrie's Dowling Studio theater. The walls ring with bird cries, and even shake as winged attackers apparently hurl themselves against the building. It's dark, claustrophobic, and very unnerving.

The Birds
The cast of "The Birds," from left, Angela Timberman, Stephen Yoakam, J.C. Cutler and Summer Hagen.
Images courtesy Guthrie Theater/Heidi Bohnenkamp

"And you definitely feel like you are there with the characters in the play experiencing this sort of post-apocalyptic bird attack," said director Henry Wishcamper.  He said the story is a thriller based on primal fears of the natural world, and distrust of politics. The apocalypse seemed a real possibility when du Maurier wrote the story in the Cold War 1950s, Wishcamper said, and Hitchcock made his film in the 1960s at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The unrest in the world today creates the same feeling in many ways, he said.

"I think the short story resonated in certain ways to its time and place, and the movie resonated in other ways to its time and place," he said. "And this really does resonate to our time and place."

Apocalyptic situations allow deep explorations of the human condition, McPherson said.

"When you strip away everything which supports our illusions of security and life, what are we?" McPherson said.

The Birds
Nat, played by J.C. Cutler, confronts Diane, Angela Timberman, as they try to work out how to survive in a world filled with murderous birds.
Photo courtesy of Guthrie Theater/Aaron Fenster

Are we animal, McPherson asks, or are we divine? What would people do to survive if civilization disappeared — not that he is necessarily going to provide any easy answers.

A strength of McPherson's work is its ambiguity, Wishcamper said. He believes part of the fun of "The Birds" will be talking over the play's implications after the lights come up.

Maintaining the claustrophobic feeling of "The Birds" is vital. Sound designer Scott Edwards had to create the bird attacks. As is often the case in his line of work, this means starting from scratch.

"Realistic sounds don't often carry the emotional weight, or what people think they sound like," he said before the show's tech rehearsal.

To get the sound just right, Edwards layered thousands of digital sound files. He does it so well the audience feels surrounded. 

A month after starting rehearsals, Wishcamper said he has now a very different view of birds as he encounters them when he's out and about.

"They definitely have a more menacing quality, just in the way I perceive them," he smiles.

Others are nervous too. The Guthrie has already received an inquiry about whether the congregations of crows in the Twin Cities have anything to do with the new show.