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Theater Review:

Sweetback Productions’ "THE BIRDS" at Berger Park Mansion Coach House

BY LUCIA MAURO

Anyone expecting a campy en travesti stage version of "The Birds" will be in for a big brainy surprise. Sweetback Productions -- which is at a pivotal, comedically probing crossroads in its seven-year history -- transcends mere parody with its original staging of the classic 1963 Alfred Hitchcock thriller. The creative team also goes beyond its breathtaking environmental locale at the Bodega Bay-esque Berger Park Mansion Coach House along the shores of Lake Michigan to weave through the multilayered psychological implications of the film’s collaborators and commentators.

This is a daring forward step backwards for Sweetback – reminiscent of its earliest resourceful and witty story crafting while a move toward an intricate fusion of filmic structure, uniquely theatrical ideologies, reversals of expectations and a sort of "split-screen" emotional exploration.

Sweetback’s founder and co-artistic director Kelly Anchors conceived and directed what’s being billed as "a feminist drag deconstruction" of Hitch’s "The Birds." It toggles between key excerpts from the movie about an unspoken feathery evil that invades a quiet West Coast town and the mental torment of the film’s star, Tippi Hedren, by its notoriously megalomaniacal director. Shifting between the "film set" and the movie itself, Anchors brilliantly creates a dizzying universe in which Hedren can no longer distinguish between fantasy and reality.

The script – penned by Anchors, Pauline Pang and David Cerda, with original music by Cerda and Scott Lamberty – exists in the confounded but eloquent caverns of the characters’ psyches. Yet this intriguing, nail-biting play (which runs for almost two intermissionless hours) has not sacrificed Sweetback’s bold self-satire or skill at wringing laughs out of the simplest of gestures (from an actor coyly lighting a cigarette to raising a deceitful eyebrow).

Adding to the cerebral-sexual tension is Camille Paglia, who serves as a feisty narrator and often quotes from her real painstaking (some would say obsessive) analyses of the movie’s symbolism. She is dramatically paired with Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s repressed and viciously condescending assistant. In a wise and ultimately cathartic move, the elusive persona of Hitchcock is never seen – a subtle stab at the director’s auteur sensibilities and need to put himself in every one of his films.

Plus the Sweetback folks are after something larger than attacking Hitchcock, who was known for his dangerous infatuation with cool blondes and his unethical methods of getting the performances he wanted as much as he was acknowledged for his boundary-snapping artistic genius. They are exploring the extent to which one’s humanity is sacrificed or lost altogether during the very creation of an artistic masterpiece that aims to ponder the human condition.

What makes the original film of "The Birds" so enthralling is its refusal to end with the destruction of those winged demons. The final scene of the birds ominously roosting and cooing as the protagonists slip out of town reminds audiences that evil can erupt at any time. We must tread lightly yet definitively around it. Sweetback’s production ends with an even starker image – a now-defiled Hedren and her fellow actors walking zombie-like into an uncertain world.

At no point do any of these ideas or stories get cluttered or short changed. One of the greatest unspoken characters in this groundbreaking performance event is the eerie yet stimulating setting of the tiny Berger Park Mansion Coach House. Audiences will feel like they are part of a camera crew moving in for close ups or panning the outlying beach. Curtains are raised and doors are opened at key points in the script to frame the action against the moon, stars, trees and even unwitting passersby walking their dogs.

One of the show’s creepiest moments, which literally places viewers in the frenzied Hedren’s pumps, occurs when the lights go out, loud ornithic noises fill the air and stuffed birds are tossed haphazardly at audience members’ heads. While I thought this scene went on about 20 seconds too long, it made a valid argument for the overwhelming power of sensory suggestion.

This production is also rich in detail and double-entendres. Costume designer Cerda has impeccably recreated Tippi Hedren’s prim – but increasingly frayed – green suit. There are wry references to "39 steps" and a whole separate psychosexual dichotomy involving the suave but wooden Mitch Brenner and the unattractive but dangerously manipulative Hitch.

A star in every sense of the word, Tracy Repep is the ultimate Melanie Daniels/Tippi Hedren. Her early vacant and confused smile gives way to a devastating delirium that seems to violently push its way through her elegant demeanor and inherent sweetness. Repep masters the actress’ most minuscule yet revelatory nuances. Also impressive is Repep’s ability to convincingly apply on-camera skills to the stage.

Jennifer Biddle LaFleur gives an astonishing performance as the rigidly vindictive Peggy Robertson and never slips into cartoon mode. Other multifaceted performances include: Merrie Greenfield as the giddily over-analytical Camille Paglia; Steve Hickson as the prudishly manipulative Lydia Brenner; Ed Jones as the irritatingly curious little Cathy Brenner; Todd McConville as self-righteous ornithologist Mrs. Bundy; and Cerda in a refreshingly low-key turn as jilted schoolteacher Annie Hayworth.

Although a number of the female characters are played by men, the drag is not used to get grand, aggressive laughs. Like Tippi Hedren’s slowly eroding sense of reality, the transvestite overtones in this production (unlike some of the group’s campier previous efforts) create another level of evocative psychological blurring.•

Sweetback Productions’ staging of "The Birds" runs through November 17 at the Berger Park Mansion Coach House, 6205 N. Sheridan Rd. Tickets: $15. Call 312-409-3925 or log onto www.sweetbackproductions.com. Note: Most of the performances have been sold out. And, in an unexpected twist of fate, the real Tippi Hedren came to the show a few weeks ago. According to Anchors, Hedren was visibly moved by Sweetback’s unconventional vision of "The Birds."

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