Ordinarily, I honor October's arrival by visiting haunted houses, but last week's Senate hearings were far more frightening than any chainsaw-wielding maniac. So instead, I'm turning this week's column over one of my favorite local stage directors and her terrifyingly timely tale of gendered power dynamics and collapsing social norms.
If you think the idea of transforming The Birds – best known from Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film – into a stage play sounds like a stretch, you aren't alone; Aradhana Tiwari, who is returning to directing for the first time since 2017's A Tennessee Walk, initially shared your skepticism when Garden Theatre artistic director Rob Winn Anderson approached her with the project.
"I was a little wary at first because I love the Hitchcock film, and was uncertain how it would be accomplished in a stage adaptation," Tiwari told me before a recent rehearsal for the show, which runs Oct. 12-28 at the Winter Garden venue. "Then I realized it was actually based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier [which inspired Hitchcock's film], and that it was something completely different."
For a 66-year-old story, The Birds is surprisingly contemporary, which is what attracted Tiwari to the script. "As soon as I started reading it, it had this post-apocalyptic energy to it that I feel is very much in the zeitgeist of now," she says, comparing it to television shows like The Leftovers and The Walking Dead. Fans of the film will recognize its iconic premise of an inexplicable avian revolt, but not much else, according to Tiwari: "In the stage adaptation, there are parts that you can find echoes from the original, but it's still very much its own story." Tiwari says that divergence works to the play's advantage, because "Hitchcock's Birds is so iconic, if it was close to that I think it might be harder to go on this journey, so I think the fact that it's so different gives you a completely different ride."
Another big difference from the big-screen Birds is the empowerment of the play's female characters, which stands in sharp contrast to the infamous abuse experienced on and off-screen by Tippi Hedren. The plot revolves around two women – Julia (Sarah Lockard) and Diane (Tara Anderson) – and their relationship with Nat (Matt Rush), which Tiwari describes as a "dynamic of female power between two different generations." That makes the play especially potent "in a time when we have a lot of strong women finding their voices and exploring their power."
However, the script's gender politics run headlong into the theme of "nature in revolt," or as Tiwari puts it, "What if nature started to come together, maybe not with the intent to execute us, but to say 'this can't go on like this any more'?" Uncontrollable ecological catastrophe invokes issues of environmental stewardship, and ultimately the extinction of humanity. "There's this underlying tension threaded through the show about 'What is my value and what is my power?' based on whether or not I'm able to procreate," Tiwari explains. "There's so much natural disaster happening, so this idea of hunkering down is very familiar. But hunkering down over a hurricane and being hunted is very different. How does that change the dynamic of survival, and the tension that builds? We can start to unravel mentally when we become the thing that's hunted, versus waiting out the storm."
Scenic designer Vandy Wood – a veteran of multiple fowl-focused shows at Ibex Puppetry, as well as countless Orlando Repertory Theatre and University of Central Florida theater productions – is helping visualize the show's feathered menace by creating "a beautiful vocabulary to give us the essence of the birds," according to Tiwari.
But the titular antagonists will mostly be embodied by the murmuration-inspired soundtrack Tiwari is designing in collaboration with audio engineer Jack Audet. "There's no explanation about whether this is a higher power, or aliens, or the birds themselves, but there is structure to this enemy. So I wanted the sound to have a little bit of that programmed sense and be more atmospheric."
Rather than relying on gory gross-outs, The Birds mines fright from "the things that are scary without the monster, because we might be the monster, or your friend might be the monster," Tiwari says. "No matter who we are, we all have the capacity to do a terrifying thing under the right circumstances. ... I don't want to say we all have an inner darkness, but we all have the potential to lean into that side if we need to survive."
"This story is really not about the birds; it's a psychological journey with these characters," Tiwari says. "To nod to Hitchcock, it's the things we don't see that are the most terrifying ... [The birds] are looming out there, but the real danger is us."