At the heart of most scholarship surrounding horror stories there lies a single question: when we observe a monster, what is it were seeing, really? Are we more afraid of Frankenstein’s monster because of its implications about science wielded thoughtlessly, or because he is the purest example of a human being, and therefore closer to us than we’d like?
Contemporary horror is an altogether different subject. Even in our grandest horror fantasies, audiences demand an extreme focus on realism and depth of character. While we may acknowledge the stumbling hoard of dead people as the fear of losing identity, we watch the AMC’s The Walking Dead as much to check up on Rick and the crew as we do harrowing tales of escape plans gone wrong.
I’m sure Vince Ventura, artistic director of 12 Peers’ bold adaptation of Conor McPherson’s The Birds (itself an adaptation of a more famous adaptation) would be the first to point out the similarities between his work and AMC’s zombified institution, but doing so would be doing a bit of disservice to a more thoughtful story. The Birds is arguably more psychological thriller than bloodied soap opera, and it’s much stronger for it.
In The Birds we follow a woman named Diane, a logically-minded, always tactical survivor of the #birdpocalypse, who is caring for Nat. This is a man who, upon awakening from an extended fever dream, apologizes for his bizarre behavior, brings up a bitter separation from his ex-wife, and ensures us that no, he’s not crazy, really. That’s all well and unsettling, but their conversation is punctuated by the thuds of at least a dozen homicidal birds. Okay, Nat. I guess you’re alright.
As you may have guessed, the overall world of The Birds is indeed quite like that of the Hitchcock classic with a modern twist. Our avian friends adjust the definition of what a “bird feeder” constitutes, and begin swarming all mammalian life en masse. Outnumbered and paranoid, humanity is depleted to a few weirdos and surviving sociopaths who presumably spend their final years giving unhinged monologues and mentally justifying Darwinism.
We don’t get to see much of this world, but we always feel its presence. The Birds’ stage is an otherwise normal living room boarded up just enough to keep out the death perpetually screaming on the other side of the wall. Despite their differences and the extreme circumstances, Diane and Nat develop a deep working relationship out of necessity. The rescue of a third survivor, Julia, who is much younger and more weathered in spite of her sunny exterior, challenges the already fragile dynamic.
The Birds features a slight three performers. What’s more is there is a clear divide between Diane (Gayle Pazerski), Nat (Nick Mitchell) and Julia (Sara Ashley Fisher). Diane is the kind of person we hope we could find in ourselves when faced with immense challenge. She is eminently logical, ready to counter any physical altercation, communicates excellently, and is an effective caretaker. Pazerski’s performance is defined by its restraint. She is possibly the most affected by the world around her, yet is the best equipped to contain herself. What it is she’s containing is a constant question arisen in the play, and it is Pazerski’s ability to convey that hidden depth of fear, regret and bias that allow the play to bloom.
Nat and Julia, on the other hand, are not only different characters, but different performers. Julia, for example, is a woman who, like Diane, is defined by her restraint. However, unlike Diane, we have a pretty good idea of what it is Julia is restraining. Fisher’s performance as Julia is maximalist on the surface, but is full of thoughtful choices. This is a woman who is the first to make herself the butt of the joke, who laughs off any situation; she is also the first to acknowledge the horror of her life. Fisher’s power is in her ability to push the cracks in the veneer of her person at just the right moments. Nat, too, is occasionally a larger than life figure, especially in the play’s quieter moments. Even then, this is a man that is hinged about 85% of the time, which is not an ideal hinge percentage in a survival setting, and Mitchell often transitions between stressed iconoclast and crazed scene chewer in the span of seconds.
This tense chemistry is an interesting choice that speaks to the heart of the play. 12 Peers’ retelling of The Birds couldn’t be more minimalist in its framework, but adding even one additional element would lessen the beauty of its structure. As such, every sudden revelation, strange choice of words and personal disagreement threatens to blow apart the house of cards that is this group. We as an audience have the lingering feeling that we don’t really know who these people are, and, more terrifyingly, that they may not either. It is this clever reversal of our innate fear of the unknown – the sensation that even the most familiar territory in our lives might belie an unfamiliar darkness – that makes The Birds and easy recommendation.
Special thanks to 12 Peer’s Theater for complimentary press tickets.
Catch The Birds in the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning through August 21st. For tickets and more information, click here.