Laughter flies in 'The Birds'

THEATER REVIEW: "The Birds" by Hell in a Handbag in Berger Park ★★★

  Lydia (Ed Jones), Cathy (Alex Grelle), and Mitch (Michael John Lea) in "The Birds."

Lydia (Ed Jones), Cathy (Alex Grelle), and Mitch (Michael John Lea) in "The Birds." (Rick Aguilar, Hell in a Handbag / August 16, 2013)

The opening shtick of "The Birds," surely one of the funniest camp parodies in off-Loop history, involves an actress playing Peggy Robertson, Alfred Hitchcock's assistant. The famously brittle Peggy leads the bemused audience from the Berger Mansion — the Chicago Park District property nestled improbably amid the massive high-rise condominium buildings on Sheridan Road in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood — into its coach house, inches from Lake Michigan. In this show, the old joint doubles as a Hitchcock soundstage, and thus a cathedral of creativity, power and fetishistic weirdness. Especially if your hair was blond or your name was Tippi Hedren.

One encounters perplexed muggles on the pathway. "Please ignore any extras you see walking their dogs or talking incoherently to themselves," says Elizabeth Lesinski's Peggy, timing that line Thursday night to land exactly as one woman ran by with her pooch and another passerby shouted into the wind like an unhinged Anthony Perkins.

And then you watch a wacky cast, somewhat in drag, "film" "The Birds," which means playing the original scenes interlaced with anachronistic real-time analysis taken from Camille Paglia's book on the movie and, specifically the relationship between a neophyte star and an all-controlling director. Paglia, played by Margo Chervony, is an actual character in the parody, penned by David Cerda and Pauline Pang, and exists mostly to torture Tippi, smoothly played by creamy-skinned newcomer Catherine McCafferty.

All of that is solid stuff, but this show's great gimmick is the way the actual attacks from those swooping sparrows and sea gulls are staged. I won't spoil your fun with too many details, but if you remember the movie, set at the seaside, you'll understand that an indoor-outdoor setting is crucial. That's what the comics at Hell in a Handbag production have at their disposal here: Actors can fight off the murderous finches on the grassy waterfront promenade and, when the sparrows start to spill blood, you can see them claw at the glass windows of the coach house.

Cerda and Pang's greater point — as exemplified by a re-creation of a treadmill to torture actors — is that the whole movie was a metaphor for the head-trip Hitch was landing on his Tippi. It's a stretch, perhaps, but parody is all about stretches, and this twist makes this rather more than one of those more typical restagings of some old campy script.

I first saw this live version of "The Birds," looking pretty much like it does now (although I seem to recall spending more time outside) in 2001, when it was under the auspices of Sweetback Productions. A dozen years on, the lovely, ageless Cerda, still essaying the role created by the ripe Suzanne Pleshette, remains the satirical anchor, even if he did have the perspicacity to note, in a post-show speech, that he now qualifies as "the world's oldest Suzanne Pleshette." True, that. But he's darn funny, as is everyone here.

And even Cerda is not as old as Hedren — yes, the real Tippi Hedren — who is slated to come to Edgewater for a look-see Sept. 7. Apparently, neither Hitch nor his feathered missiles could stamp out her sense of humor.

cjones5@tribune.com

When: Through Sept. 15

Where: Coach House at Berger Park, 6205 N. Sheridan Road

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $19-$35 at 800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com

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