April 28, 2006
Birding for fun, again
By David Ollington
In 1996, the local impresario of the irreverent, Ron Megee, made his debut as the artistic director of Late Night Theatre with a staged pastiche of the Hitchcock classic, The Birds. The show played at the Westport Coffeehouse Theatre which served as Late Night’s first home.
The group name reflects how the iconoclastic artists at first set a regular curtain time of 11 p.m., thereby allowing the Westport Coffeehouse (and other theatres later) to play another show at the more traditional 8:00 hour.
Kansas City audiences sat up and took notice. The 1996 production of The Birds included brilliant improvisational comedy, an almost insane physical humor and celebratory warmth. Courageously defying logic, Late Night Theatre incorporated musical numbers into their send up of the film. The actors (all male) performed the songs with comic choreography that seemed channeled from beyond (the programs at first never listed a choreographer).
Five years later, Late Night set up shop in the Old Chelsea in the River Market. The seedy atmosphere of the stripper club fit the often-raunchy humor that Late Night explores. For their first production there, they remounted The Birds with Megee again in the lead role, Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels.
Add another half a decade, and Late Night Theatre once again offers us their Hitchcock satire, in all its feathery camp, now playing in their more permanent home on Grand. They filled their current tenth anniversary season with revivals of favorites; an audience poll helped with the selection.
A cigar smoking Alfred Hitchcock (Bill Pelletier), after accentuating his very specific silhouette, introduces us to the characters and plot. He, along with three naughtily alluring “Bird Boys” (Jon piggy Cupit, Ryan Gov and Justin Van Pelt), serve as commentators — a sardonic Greek chorus. Pelletier offers his regular input verbally, with plays on words (usually nasty) from his portly pout. The Bird Boys do everything else that’s needed. They move sets, operate puppet birds, play parts and gyrate.
Everyone else has three names. Jeremy Griffin plays Rod Taylor as Mitch Brenner. De De DeVille plays Suzanne Pleshette as Annie Hayworth. Gary Campbell plays Veronica Cartwright as Cathy Brenner, and Ray Ettinger, Jessica Tandy as Lydia Brenner. Megee, Cupit, Campbell and Ettinger performed their roles in all three incarnations of this Late Night classic.
They occasionally nod to the odd plot of the original film, but Hitchcock’s thriller serves as a backdrop to Late Night’s more important work: improvisation, drag humor, musical numbers and audience participation.
Megee’s character needs to make a telephone call. Cupit also served as set designer and placed a bizarrely shaped telephone boot on one side of the stage. Megee asks audience members for a coin to make his call. Once he gets it, he enters the booth to find it completely lacking in a coin slot, so he throws the quarter at the phone and dials. DeVille drapes herself across the legs of spectators, which prompts Megee to say, “We can’t leave that drag queen on those poor straight people’s laps.” At a critical moment, Pelletier proclaims, “We have not reached the most terrifying part of the evening. The end of the Act and no one knows their lines.”
The staged songs provide some of the most delightful moments of the event. During a rather dry speech by Ettinger as Jessica Tandy, DeVille sings “Don’t it Make my Brown Eyes Blue,” with the three sultry Bird Boys supporting her. Act Two opens with an homage to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In where the cross-dressing performers wiggle to late-‘60s dance music, interrupted by speeches about trivia surrounding the film they honor.
Megee directed and, with Phillip Blue Owl Hooser, wrote the show. The overall effect of the event is hilarious. Megee onstage somehow succeeds at both honoring and taunting his fellow performers. He can break character with expert spontaneity, inciting laughter with quirky movement and barbed wit. Ettinger, in all three productions of The Birds, takes his portrayal of Jessica Tandy completely seriously. Often caressing and brandishing an Oscar award trophy, he plays the part with a somber countenance, somehow resembling Eddie Albert in the TV sitcom Green Acres, a realistic person in a wonderland of insane caricature.
Gary Campbell’s portrayal of the young girl defies description. They mark the passage of days by Pelletier as Hitchcock raising Campbell’s skirt to reveal young Cathy’s daily panties, embroidered with “Monday,” “Tuesday,” “Wednesday,” etc. This somehow colors Campbell’s demonstrative creation. Of all the actors onstage, Campbell moves and speaks with the largest size.
Pelletier fits the part of Hitchcock physically and does well with the role, but sadly he replaces Hooser in this production. Phillip Blue Owl Hooser played it in 1996 and 2001. Many of Hitchcock’s lines twist a bawdy knife, for example: “He was a cunning linguist” and “that scene was about as exciting as an Amish blow job.” Hooser spoke such lines with a realistic bite and surprise. Pelletier lacks Hooser’s fresh delivery.
Late Night Theatre stands the test of time. A decade of these demented creations attests to that. They list in their program numerous private donors and the dedicated following continues to laugh. Here’s to another decade.
Late Night Theatre’s The Birds runs until May 27 at their Theatre at 1531 Grand. Call the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222 or visit www.latenighttheatre.com.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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