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DramaWatch: The malevolence of birds

Imago's Jerry Mouawad talks about the Covid-era fear factor in Conor McPherson's tense and anxious stage version of "The Birds." Plus: Stage openings & closings.


“I say this with caution: Pre-Covid, I thought it was impossible to scare an audience in a theater anymore.”

So says Imago Theatre co-founder Jerry Mouawad, pondering the parameters of on-stage horror as he offers a tour of the set for his latest show. Partly, he suggests, the inherent artifice of theater is too well-known and too present; “we can suspend disbelief, but only so much,” he says. And maybe, with all the devices that audiences have been exposed to through decades of film and television, it’s easy to be jaded and unimpressed. 

“But I think the tension we have amid Covid heightens what we feel when we sit in a theater.”

Diane (Melissa Jean Swenson) nurses Nat (Mathew DiBiaso) from delirium in Imago’s production of Conor McPherson’s “The Birds.” Photo: Jerry Mouawad

The tension of strange and dangerous times courses through The Birds, which opens Friday in a production directed by Mouawad. The play, by the terrific Irish playwright Conor McPherson, is — like the famous 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name — a liberal adaptation of a story by the British writer Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1952. And if the idea of an avian-attack apocalypse, the premise for all three versions, has at times seemed purely fantastical, think back just a bit to the summer and fall of 2020, when — amid unchecked viral contagion, escalating social protests, choking wildfire smoke, “murder hornets,” etc. — folks were making semi-serious bets on whether the next calamity would be “rain of frogs” or something stranger. Vengeful gulls wouldn’t have been that much of a surprise.

Mouawad says he discovered the play after working on a long-distance audio production with  the former Portlander Drew Pisarra, a poet and monologist. Mouawad asked Pisarra to suggest some plays and he recommended a book of McPherson’s work. 

Matt DiBiasio, who has starred in other Imago productions, most notably in Mouawad’s darkly dazzling version of Yukio Mishima’s The Black Lizard, takes on one of the principal roles here, but the other actors (Melissa Jean Swenson, Elizabeth Rees and Paul Bright) are Imago newcomers.

“It looks like just a four-person play, but you dig into it and it’s a pretty big production for Imago,” Mouawad says. Though McPherson doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on terror-inducing attacks from the air, the production will employ a mix of puppetry and sound and lighting designs to create the right anxiety-laced atmosphere.

Each of the three iterations of The Birds presents — without explanation or backstory — a scenario in which birds suddenly begin to gather in huge numbers and mount deadly attacks against any and all humans, even mounting massed assaults on buildings to get at us through windows or any openings that they can find or make. The original du Maurier story is set in the English county of Cornwall, and outlines the onset of the attacks from the perspective of a farmer. The Hitchcock film, with a screenplay by Evan Hunter, takes place in Northern California and features a more elaborate plot centered on a nascent romance between a self-centered socialite and a lawyer. Both stories suggest that the bird attacks become more than a local phenomenon.

McPherson’s version, set in “New England in the near future,” again deals with a different set of characters, strangers who find themselves hiding out together in an abandoned house in the country. Little threads in the dialogue hint that humanity has been under sustained assault for a long time, the few survivors venturing out only during times of low tide when the birds do not attack — a curious feature of du Maurier’s original premise — to scavenge for dwindling food and supplies. (And you thought Covid lockdown was tough.) It’s as though all three stories have become parts of the same grim history. 

And yet, though it’s very much still framed by life-or-death struggle and the end of the world as we know it, this version is predicated not so much on horror as on a subtler sense of menace, its concerns ultimately less with the danger of beaks and claws than of human psyches. 

“I really don’t think McPherson wrote to scare you,” Mouawad says. “Hitchcock, horror films, survivor stories — that realm is in play while at the same time another realm is in play. It’s an unusual world — the end of the world, with birds attacking. But McPherson has used that to examine other things. That the birds are attacking and these might be the last people living becomes, well, not irrelevant, but that becomes the background. As the play goes on, the development of the relationships comes into the foreground. We see that the real fear is not of the birds but of other humans.”

The flattened stage

“Surely the birds appreciate all we’ve done for them.”


Elf — the Musical, coming to Lakewood Theatre in a production directed by Michael Snider, is an adaptation of the hit 2003 movie that starred the fiercely unfunny (as in not at all funny, ever) Will Ferrell. Go enjoy it —  if you like that sort of thing.


Angela Allen, in a review for ArtsWatch, called Frida…a Self Portrait  “unapologetic, strange and beautiful.” The final performances of Vanessa Severo’s solo dive into the mystique of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo will be this weekend at Portland Center Stage.

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Vanessa Severo amid the costumes in “Frida … a Self Portrait,” closing this weekend at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Owen Carey

Demand for Impulse XV, the latest improv excursion from members of the Oregon Children’s Theatre Young Professionals program, has been so strong that OCT has managed to expand the available seating in the Brunish Theatre. So while the show is no longer sold out (and how often does that happen?), it does have just three more performances slated.

Best line I read this week

“I think that when people several centuries in the future look back at the twentieth century, they’ll probably see the signs of a world civilization being consumed by the communication technologies it used.”

— Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, in the liner notes to the 2000 compilation album Ohm: the Early Gurus of Electronic Music

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.


Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.