All plays really begin when you arrive at the theater, before you enter, before the curtain speech, before the curtain, before the first speaker. The Birds, at the Altarena Playhouse, begins with a big banner mounted on the wall of the building, visible from the sidewalk and from your car when you drive either way on High Street. THE BIRDS. Few of us of a certain age and from this area cannot help but respond to these two words with ducking and cringing. Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren, and the awful sounds and images of all that damn pecking! I’m sure it’s lovely, but I’ve never ever been to Bodega Bay. When you hand over your ticket at Altarena, get a program, and take your seat, it just gets wonderfully worse. Solo piano music is playing, a large candle placed down front won’t stop flickering, and an unmade bed, upstage right, just makes you feel itchy all over.
But this THE BIRDS is not that The Birds. Rather—forgive me—it is the terrifying hatchling written by Connor McPherson that came from the egg story by Daphne du Maurier that became the ornithological movie masterpiece that scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. And instead of the famously droll guy with the drooping face and dreary voice, we get the remarkable director Kimberly Ridgeway at the helm, or maybe cagekeeper/rattler is the better title. Along with her talented team, Ridgeway pretty much freaked me out all night. Here are some of the ways:
- While we never see any birds, we sure as heck hear them, squawking and screeching and then squawking more. Ugh. Kudos to sound engineer Daniel “Techno” Debono.
- The set is the living room where the characters endure the squawking and screeching. That room is made of cheap wood paneling, and I think we’d all agree that nothing good ever happens in a room with cheap wood paneling. Ugh. Well done Tom Curtain.
- Though a common technique used to indicate the shift in a scene, typically from one day to the next, Kimberly, seriously, did you have to keep turning the lights off and on so darn much? Thanks for making me afraid of the dark. Ugh. Bravo Stephanie Johnson.
- Ordinary objects unnerved me: the plastic clang of a small empty slop bucket, the re-application of a soggy Band-Aid to an ouchy forehead, the metal footlocker where important scary stuff seems to be stored, and the hatchet that’s brought in and leaned against the wall (nicknamed Chekov, right?) Ugh. Nice work Dianne Harrison.
- The purposeful dishevelment of costumes: a tie left untied, a wedding dress not completely zipped, an odd foot sock thingy that somehow stays stuck to a female foot, and the flooded pants on the overalls of the neighbor whose forehead is also jacked up. More ugh. Great job Nia Simone Jacobs.
As for the story and the actors playing the characters, they’re mostly to blame for how wonderfully creepily it all came together. In a way that sort of evokes the pandemic, the birds in The Birds play the role of the coronavirus driving first two then three then kind of four people indoors to shelter in place for an extended quarantine/imprisonment. And like what many of us experienced, that isolation from others and concentration with others turned everything inside out and made some of us wish we’d been born into different families. Gabriella Goldstein, Richard Perez, Gwynnevere Cristobal, and Tim Holt Jones play their parts with such an authentic edge that they reminded me of when I first saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was certain they’d filmed it in an actual mental hospital with actual mental patients. The Birds quartet was unsettling and outstanding, giving weight to small gestures, squawking loudly themselves at times, and then the horrible pauses for the clatter of their winged neighbors outside everywhere all at once.
One last thing to praise and complain about: The play was performed without an intermission, so once you sit down in your seats, all of which are way too close to the action in the play, you’re stuck, you can’t take a break and get a cookie and coffee in the lobby, disengaging for mental health’s sake. And you dare not leave during the show to use the bathroom. Why? They’re out there, they really are, and if you go out there, well, you just may not make it back. Ever.
The Birds runs weekends until September 10. Get tickets online at the Altarena Playhouse website, and be sure to bring that friend of yours who always says, yeah, yeah, that’s not scary, nothing really scares me.
P.S. Artistic Director Katina Letheule announced before the show that the Altarena is doing a fundraiser drive entitled Fill Our Hearts. Theaters across the country and here in the Bay Area are struggling to recover from the pandemic. Audiences have been slow to return, business sponsorships are down, and some places have been forced to close. The Altarena Playhouse has long been the engine for dramatic art here in Alameda. The Alameda Children’s Music Theater used to perform there, a multitude of amazing local actors took their first steps on that stage, and I was fortunate in being able to perform and direct at the Altarena. I beseech you to help out—come see a show, make a donation, subscribe.
Gene Kahane is the founder of the Foodbank Players, a lifelong teacher, and former Poet Laureate for the City of Alameda. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Gene-Kahane.