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Cheep thrills are coming to The Laboratory Theater with a "parroty" of "The Birds"

Birds Promo 2.jpg

The Laboratory Theater of Florida celebrates the coming of summer each year by spoofing a famous Hollywood movie. This year, it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film "The Birds."

Naples actor Sue Schaffel plays Lydia Brenner, who was portrayed in the movie by Jessica Tandy. She had misgivings when artistic director Annette Trossbach told her that Lab’s doing a take off on "The Birds" in June.

“I remember seeing this movie, "The Birds," years and years and years ago, and it scared the daylights out of me,” said Schaffel. “And I thought, omigosh, when Annette comes up with this idea of we’re going to do a parody of "The Birds." I thought, well at least it’s a parody. It’ll be funny ... dada dada da.”

To Schaffel’s surprise, every time she told people that she’d been cast in a parody of "The Birds," they laughed. But it wasn’t until she began the rehearsal process that she discovered just how funny Trossbach’s spoof of "The Birds" really is.

“Everybody’s seen these movies, and to come and see it in a parody form just enlivens it and makes it fun and happy and everybody laughs,” said Schaffel.

But in adapting Evan Hunter’s screenplay of Daphne DuMaurier’s novella, Annette Trossbach wasn’t satisfied with funny. She wanted to create something campy—in the tradition of parodies like Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen’s "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf," or last summer’s "Sunset Smoulevard," in which Schaffel starred as Norma Desmond.

“We had such success with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: A Parody of the Horror [in 2017] and with Hush Up Sweet Charlotte [in 2018] that I started to think about what other horror films of the ‘50s or ‘60s I could adapt for the stage,” said Trossbach.

“I read the screenplay for "Psycho" and the screenplay for "Exorcist," and I read the screenplay for "The Birds," as well as a couple of others. I actually started tinkering with a number of scripts, and I found that "[The] Birds" had the potential to be the funniest of the lot.”

There are a handful of attributes that make a play campy. The first is the actors’ ability to overdramatize.

“Moments of sexual tension or moments of heightened drama or anticipation of these birds coming into the town and attacking the citizenry are played up and heightened,” said Trossbach.

“So, we make much more of those kinds of moments. The two of them, Mitch Brenner and Melanie Daniels, the two leads in the show, are very attracted to one another in the film, but its 1962, 1963, so all of that is really understated in the film. We’re going in the opposite direction.”

"Rocky Horror" or "That Golden Girls Show" are often cited as the epitome of campy. Part of the reason is that they cast men in women’s roles, and vice versa. That’s true in "The Birds," where Trossbach cast Steven Michael Kennedy in the role of Melanie Daniels.

“Which is the Tippi Hedren role from the movie with the boobs and the hips and the heels and the pantyhose and the blonde wig and the makeup and so forth, carrying a purse and doing all of the things that Tippi Hedren did in the film,” said Trossbach.

Trossbach explains that the most important trait of camp is the opportunity for the actors to talk directly to the audience, and the audience’s ability to talk back to the performers.

“There is quite a bit of opportunity for Steven Michael Kennedy to interact with the audience, so if audience members like to talk back to performers, be in the front row,” said Trossbach.

“Come and show yourselves. It’s not required that audiences talk back to the actors, it’s not required that audience members throw Peeps, but there is that opportunity for people who like to participate. It’s definitely that kind of show.”

You heard right. The true stars of this show are Peeps.

Oh, there’s birds of all shapes, sizes and colors. There are actors playing birds. Birds coming down from the rafters. There are projections of birds, and birds on wires and birds on sticks. But the scariest, most harrowing of all the birds in this play are soft, spongy marshmallow chicks.

“We’re going to be attempting to set a new world record for the number of Peeps used in a live performance,” said Trossbach.

“The current record is something like 12 Peeps in a live performance balanced on a child’s face while the child is sleeping, or something ridiculous like that.”

According to Trossbach, 340 Peeps will be dropped from above during one of the attack scenes, and another 160 will be thrown at the actors from the wings.

“We’ll have 500 Peeps in each performance not counting the Peeps that the audience is going to throw,” said Trossbach. “There’s audience opportunity to throw Peeps as well. And the projections on the back wall that Paula Sisk is making not only set the scene but tell the audience what to do when.”

Let’s do the math.

Lab will perform "The Birds" 19 times between it’s first half-price preview on June 1 and its closing performance on July 2nd. That means that the theater will need 9,800 Peeps, not counting the ones they hand out to the audience to throw from their seats. Sure, some can be reused, but where does one get 10,000 or more Peeps?

Enter Sue Schaffel.

“I heard Annette say they couldn’t find any more Peeps in the Dollar Stores up in Fort Myers and I said I know of a couple of Dollar Stores down by me,” said Schaffel.

“I live in Naples. And so I walked into this one Dollar Store and there was a whole display in front. Cases upon cases. And I just looked around and I saw one of the cashiers or managers or something and I said, ‘I’m going to take all of these cases of Peeps.’ And the manager comes over and says ‘All of them?’ And I said ‘All of them.’ He says, ‘Well, it’s a good thing you came today because I just dropped the price to 75% off. Yesterday it was 50% off, now it’s 75% off.’ I said, ‘Even better.’”

As it turned out, that Dollar Store had 64 unopened cases or some 7,680 Peeps. So many, in fact, that she couldn’t fit them all into her car and had to drive home and get her husband’s truck.

While Peeps may be front and center in Lab Theater’s parody of the Hitchcock film, some may wonder if there could be any truth in the underlying story.

Two years before the movie’s release there was an incident in Monterrey Bay, California where thousands of disoriented seabirds rammed themselves into the sides of homes and stores. Researchers subsequently discovered that they’d been poisoned by toxic algae similar to the blue-green algae that’s produced in the Gulf and the Caloosahatchee from discharges of nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee.

Just sayin’.

FAST FACTS.

  • Daphne du Maurier first published The Birds in her 1952 collection of short stories and novellas titled The Apple Tree. In du Maurier’s version, a farmhand, his family and the community in which they live are attacked by flocks of birds in kamikaze fashion. The story is set in du Maurier's home county of Cornwall shortly after the end of the Second World War. By the end of the story it becomes clear that all of Britain is under aerial assault.
  • The campy parody Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf was written by Tim Ryder and Tim Sniffen of Chicago’s Second City in collaboration with Writers Theatre. It was produced by Lab Theater in January of 2020.
  • Lab Theater Producing Artistic Director Annette Trossbach also adapted the script for Sunset Schmoulevard, which the theater produced in June of 2021.
  • Having Peeps thrown at the actors from the wings during the attack scenes is eerily reminiscent of what happened to Tippi Hedren during the sequence in which she’s attacked in the famous bedroom scene in the movie. Hedren was promised by the filmmaker he would use mechanical birds, but on the day of filming Hitchcock’s assistant director informed her that the mechanical birds weren’t working and they’d have to use real birds instead. Live birds were loosely tied to Hedren while she was lying on the floor and when the director yelled “Action!” the birds literally started pecking her while the bird wranglers threw more live birds directly at her. Hedren was so traumatized that the studio’s doctor ordered her to take a week off, a directive that Hitchcock countermanded.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

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