The Bird Still Flies High
In the fall of 2000, a friend introduced me to a relatively unknown renegade theatre troupe called Late Night Theatre. Since it was housed in an old porno theatre in a semi-rundown part of town, just going there provided a naughty thrill. Men lined up at the women’s restroom to feel the gaudy velvet wallpaper, people waited to sit in the newly installed seats (finished just hours before), and intermission featured a raffle of authentic, vintage, 35mm 1970’s porn.
Those who were around at that time will remember that the play that Late Night Theatre produced was The Birds, a scandalously funny and irreverent send-up of the classic Hitchcock horror film. It was the first play I had ever seen that made me laugh so hard that I actually cried. And it was arguably the first play that made Late Night Theatre the Kansas City icon that it is today.
The Birds was not Late Night Theatre’s first show. No, they had already been around for several years, putting on shows where they could find space, whether in somebody’s apartment living room or during unused times at the Unicorn Theatre. But The Birds is the show that put the company on the map; even though the plucky theatre troupe had to find several other homes after that lovely house of sin, it continued to increase its reputation, not to mention its cadre of loyal fans.
So now, ten years later, the Late Night Theatre has decided to resurrect their classic show, which will be playing until the end of May in their now permanent (hopefully) home on Grand Street.
Like most of the group’s more brilliant (yes, I said brilliant) shows, The Birds is best appreciated by those who have seen the movie upon which it is based. The movie is told—in condensed form—with an almost “pop-up video” feel. Alfred Hitchcock himself (played by Bill Pelletier) breaks into the show at various points to provide some background comment or bit of trivia—almost like the commentary track of a DVD. As the show progresses, the actors also break out of character to offer their own viewpoints on the filming.
Here a note of explanation is in order. The actors in the play do not just portray the characters in the film. No, they portray the actual actors who become the characters in the movie. Get it? For example, one of the original film’s characters, Lydia, was played by a young Jessica Tandy. So Late Night actor Ray Ettinger plays an ego-driven Jessica Tandy playing the character of Lydia. As the play goes on, Tandy takes many opportunities to break from her film role to remind everyone of the awards she has won throughout her career.
While the first act focuses more or less on the movie’s plot (with the aforementioned trivia breaks), the second act ascends to a more abstract meta-level, in which the process of making the movie takes as much of the limelight as the movie itself. The actors playing the roles begin falling apart; Tippi Hedren (played by Ron Megee), who plays the lead female role of Melanie, lets her ditzy side get the better of her, and every other actor reaches the end of his or her own rope. It all adds up to a bizarrely surreal comedy experience that underscores the genius of a small group of actors who work with a small budget and an even smaller performance space.
If you’re one of the lucky fans who were there for the first performance of this classic piece of theatre, it’s fun to visit it again and see most of the main roles being reprised by the original actors (they even use the original video, shot for the first production). If, however, you have yet to experience the fun lunacy of this gender-bending satirical group, this is the perfect “doorway drug” to get introduced. After all, it’s the show that got me hooked.