Chicago's theater scene is world renowned but it's important to remember that distinction doesn't always mean we have to take ourselves too seriously to bring highly respectable shows to the stage.
Hell in a Handbag Productions has been putting a comedic spin on classic movies and stories for the past decade. This month the company brings back one of its most popular original productions, The Birds - a parody of the famed 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Originally written and performed in 2001, Hell in a Handbag's The Birds has been brought back three times since due to popular demand and has branched out to Los Angeles for a run there. It's currently being performed Thursdays through Sundays at the Berger Park Coach House.
Chicago Like A Local chatted with co-writer and producer David Cerda about the popularity of the show and some of the stars from the original film that the show has attracted.
Chicago Like A Local: Can you explain the plot of the play a bit? It's not the exact same as the original movie, right?
David Cerda: Yeah, it's a little different. It's a parody of the film. So, it's the same story. It's about this blonde socialite who meets a charming bachelor lawyer. She follows him to Bodega Bay with the lovebirds for his sister that he was looking for and when she arrives all of a sudden the town starts getting mysteriously attacked by birds.
Back in the late '90s I read about the making of The Birds and about how Hitchcock was obsessed with Tippi Hedren. This was before there was a movie about it. So the play is about Hitchcock's control over Tippi and also her unraveling during the making of The Birds, how he'd get inside her head. You don't know what you're seeing onstage - if it's just what Tippi sees or what's actually happening. I say it's like Airplane mixed with David Lynch because it's very silly and very funny sometimes but sometimes it's scary and little creepy.
CLAL: So, unlike the movie, Hitchcock is an actual character in your play?
DC: Actually he's not. He's too iconic. We have a cold British women who plays his assistant and speaks through Hitchcock. She's the villain.
CLAL: I love the concept of turning The Birds into a comedy. I'm interested to know what gave you the idea and how you approached that because, really, there are no comedic elements to the original movie. How did you go about turning the story into something that was laughable?
DC: Well, we don't ever laugh at the subject matter. We laugh with it. We only do things that we love, like I love The Birds.
CLAL: Oh sure, I wasn't implying that you were just making fun of it.
DC: Right. Making fun of it would just get old after about 10 minutes. What we try to do is embrace some of the older aspects of the film, like the style of acting from that day that's a little wooden. In the '50s and '60s there was that really stilted dialogue but Hitchcock's direction and the pictures he paints kind of transcend that. That was Tippi's first film. She had never acted before so it's kind of a testament to her presence that even though she wasn't the best actress she still made such an impression that people still think about the film today.
I think the secret is gentle loving fun instead of making fun of something. If I didn't like the movie, I wouldn't bother because it's so much hard work. You asked when I had the idea for the show. If I had thought about it, I probably wouldn't have done it because it's so much work. [laughs] Even with our small special effects budget it's still costs a lot of money to buy a bunch of fake birds and run around and scream ... in high heels!
CLAL: Have you ever thought about approaching any other Hitchcock films? Are you a fan of all of his work or just The Birds?
DC: We talked about maybe doing Rebecca. Charles Busch kind of did Marnie with Psycho Beach Party. But otherwise, not really.
CLAL: You're probably a little tired of Hitchcock at this point.
DC: [laughs] Well, we specialize in parody. We're a camp parody drag theater company so our biggest hits have been The Birds and The Poseidon Adventure. We did a musical version of The Poseidon Adventure called POSEIDON! An Upside Down Musical. We've done prison genre, a narrative of Imitation of Life, campy movies that you love, a Christmas show we do every year. We just like to have fun but keep the jokes smart. We have such a loyal following we joke that this isn't really a theater company, it's a cult.
CLAL: Tell me a little bit about your cast for the show. Do you use the same players for every production?
DC: We have an ensemble cast so we try to use as many that will fit into roles. We were lucky with The Birds last year for the Tippi part because we found a girl named Catherine McCafferty. She's stunning. She's just amazing on stage. Tippi Hedren came to the show last year and she was blown away by her.
CLAL: That is amazing!
DC: Well, because of The Birds, I've become friends with Tippi. She saw it in 2001 and she's seen every show since. She helped support the Los Angeles production. She helped make it a fundraiser because she has a ranch in California to help exotic abandoned lions and tigers. She's dedicated her life to helping animals who were circus performers or used in movies or who were just owned by someone who thought a tiger would make a good pet. These animals have no one they can live. They'll be destroyed so she takes them in. It costs a lot to run something like that.
CLAL: I can imagine. But it sounds like a really great cause.
DC: Yes. We do fundraisers for her and collect money after each show. Last year we had a fundraiser and raised around seven or eight thousand dollars.
CLAL: That's really great.
DC: Yeah, Tippi's 85 and going strong. She's very beautiful.
CLAL: Have you had contact with any other original cast members from the movie?
DC: Veronica Cartwright came to the show. She played the little girl, Cathy, but she's got a big career [outside of The Birds]. She was in Aliens. She was in The Witches of Eastwick. She's on television shows all the time. She really fun and very cool. She shared a lot with us about the making of The Birds. Her and Tippi came to the show together about six years ago and we just had the best time with it.
CLAL: What was the craziest behind-the-scenes story they told you about the movie?
DC: Well, this is on the DVD extras too, but they were talking about how in the school scene they had the kids on a treadmill. The kids were running on a treadmills and they kept speeding it up so the kids were just going flying off of it. Veronica was also 11 years old at the time and Hitchcock would tell her what kind of wine she should drink with certain foods. She was like, "Um...okay. I'm 11..." [laughs]
CLAL: For people who aren't familiar with Hell in a Handbag, tell me a bit more about it.
DC: We've been around since 2002 and we have done about three shows a year so if you do the math....39, maybe? Forty?
We're Chicago's only theater company that does camp and parody. We freely embrace the "camp" element of things. A lot of people are afraid to do that because it's really hard to do it the right way and people sometimes want to be taken more seriously. We also mix men playing women and women playing men. It doesn't matter to us. It's just the way it is. We're not trying to make a statement.
CLAL: Well, comedy has always been my favorite kind of theater. Any future productions in the works?
DC: We're announcing our new season soon, so check our website for that.
Hell in a Hangbag's The Birds runs at the Berger Park Coach House through November 1. Tickets are on sale now starting at $17.
Photos Courtesy of Hell in a Handbag Productions