The Birds at Hell in a Handbag Productions: Theater review
Hell in a Handbag revisits its Hitchcock parody, balancing screwball with cerebral.
A brief disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie. And I haven’t read Camille Paglia’s 96-page psychoanalytic deconstruction that marked its 35th anniversary. I’m also going to bet that not everyone who sees the show will have either. Still, Paglia’s thesis, that the birds are a manifestation of repressed sexual impulses, provides the perfect drive for Hell in a Handbag’s drag parody stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s classic.
The 2001 play’s comforting screwball humor, with a gag assault in the spirit of Airplane! or Spaceballs, is balanced by its premise's cerebral bent. Here, the audience is immersed in the film set as “invited guests of Mr. Hitchcock,” incorporating the drama surrounding Hitchcock’s decision to cast unknown Tippi Hedren (Catherine McCafferty) as the film’s lead. True to Hitchcock, the worlds on-camera and off– become unnervingly blurred, the mystery and tension in "real life" reflecting that of the film. John Kelly’s lighting design is especially effective in establishing a necessary amount of clarity while wrapping everything in a surreal filmic sheen.
The cast’s reverence for its subject is also evident. Particularly affecting is cowriter David Cerda—a veteran portrayer of Joan Crawford—as Suzanne Pleshette and her onscreen character Annie Hayworth. Cerda finds the defiance and vulnerability in both, carrying it all with a compelling sass, especially in the character's confessional lounge number, sung to the audience over a cigarette.
And the birds? The special effects and puppetry of Lolly Extract and Amber Marsh bring them to life. The attacks—using the Berger Park coach house's big windows—give us the feeling that we’re watching from within our own shelter, as actors run around flailing against the doors outside. Like the show as a whole, it’s fun and kitschy but doesn’t forget the darker tension and drama that must be really sold to make something Hitchcockian, or a thorough Hitchcock spoof, successful. It’s no wonder that even Ms. Hedren herself has endorsed it.