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'The Birds' at Theatre in the Round: Capturing animal anarchy onstage

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Getty

Chirps and squawks are easy to find on the internet, but if you want a good wing flap, you’ll have to make it yourself. That’s what Robert Hoffman has learned as sound designer for Theatre in the Round’s new production of The Birds.

“The Alfred Hitchcock film features mostly crows and seagulls,” says Hoffman, who improvised a feathers-and-flyswatter device to make a “pretty convincing” flapping sound. “I tried to expand the variety. Even small, cute, chirpy birds... what would birds like that sound like if they were angry?”

Sound is critical in Conor McPherson’s 2009 play, because—spoiler alert—you never actually see the birds. “There are sound cues all throughout the show,” says director Seth Kaltwasser. “There’s this constant soundscape of birds outside.”

While the play is based on the same 1952 Daphne du Maurier story that inspired Hitchcock’s classic 1963 film, it tells a very different story. “Our play features four completely new characters that don’t appear in the movie,” explains Kaltwasser. “It all takes place within a farmhouse where two survivors have taken refuge.”

The Guthrie Theater produced The Birds in 2012, but the play will be a very different experience on Theatre in the Round’s distinctive arena stage. “You feel like you’re right there” with the trapped characters, says Kaltwasser. “This sense of claustrophobia, this sense of paranoia grows and grows.”

The stage does pose some challenges: “There are several moments in the play where the characters are boarding up windows or peering through doors,” says Kaltwasser. “The designers and cast and I have had to think creatively about how to achieve that effect when there are no walls.”

Hoffman is employing the full range of the sound system’s 360-degree capabilities, using as many as 10 speakers. “Birds have to come from specific areas,” he says. “That involves a lot of complex programming.”

While the play’s premise has the characters fighting to survive an unexpected wave of aggression from their feathered former friends, the drama is equally about how they’ll survive being cooped up with one another. Although a central plot strand has two women developing a mutual animosity while a male character tries to make peace, Kaltwasser says he and his cast are striving to avoid melodrama.

“I didn’t want this to become a play about two women fighting over a man in the middle,” he says. Instead, the production speaks to a broader tension between order and chaos. “It’s been a much more rich conversation than what a person might initially see upon a first read of the script.”

The play’s fantasy scenario is very relevant to the real-world environmental challenges we’re facing, says Kaltwasser. “In a moment when people have a choice to unite and band together against an overwhelming catastrophe, they get distracted fighting with each other.”

The Birds
Theatre in the Round
245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
612-333-3010; through September 29