HE GULLS: Penny Champayne and Chris Loftus bring a leering, infectious energy to this Hitchcock parody.
If Ryan Landry gets any more respectable, he’ll be hosting Masterpiece Theatre. The recently anointed Huntington Theatre Company Playwriting Fellow and his fellow drag royalty, the Gold Dust Orphans, just headlined the Elliot Norton Awards ceremony, where Landry’s Phantom of the Oprah was nominated for Outstanding Musical. Still, don’t go looking for the raucous troupe to snag an award from the Audubon Society anytime soon. The Orphans’ spirited riff on the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds has been removed from Northern California to Provincetown and renamed The Gulls (at Machine through May 30). But like its inspiration, it paints our feathered friends as something akin to flying pit bulls. Some of its birds, singly and in groups, are on sticks. Some are on strings. Some are on shelves. Some inhabit what looks like a giant slot machine. Some are fresh out of taxidermy, some are fresh off trailer-park lawns, and a few have just retired from careers as duck decoys. Many are lustily wielded by the very humans they’re out to attack. But all are on a mission, and that’s not good for humankind, gay or straight, at the tip of an increasingly commercialized Cape.
First produced in Provincetown in 2003, The Gulls represents the Orphans at their ingenious low-tech best, with elaborate two-dimensional settings (which include a couple of moving vehicles) and lavishly detailed if ridiculous costumes (these include several pluckable ones for hulking actors), in addition to the hilariously terrifying, strobe-lit “birdraku” special effects. Of course, the Orphans’ sensibility being what it is, the aura is closer to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? grotesquerie than to the elegant menace and repressed sexuality of Hitchcock. Take the gaggle of schoolchildren singing “Risseldy, Rosseldy” as a hostile bunch of crows start to blanket the playground. Led by P.J. McWhiskers’s lesbian linebacker of a Kathy, 11-year-old sister of the character played by Rod Taylor in the film, they’re the homeliest and most maniacal crew ever to inhabit beanie and pinafore. All that’s needed is Steve Urkel as Miss Jean Brodie.
Despite detours into hysteria and lust (and one instance of geriatric pole dancing), The Gulls hews pretty close to the plot of The Birds, even re-creating a few of the more memorable avian attacks with uncanny if slightly unhinged faithfulness. In truth, this show is as much homage as it is parody, right down to Penny Champayne’s lacquered blond twist and mint-green suit. Champayne, though more expressive than Tippi Hedren (most actors are), plays wealthy newspaper magnate’s gorgeous spawn Melanie Daniels, who meets handsome mama’s boy Mitch (Chris Loftus) in a Boston bird store and follows him to his P-town home bearing a pair of “domesticated gulls” as an ostensible birthday gift for his here-anything-but-little sister (McWhiskers).
There the suspicious town folk include a homophobic sheriff, a callous female realtor named Coldwell Banker, a near-naked guy in a leather cap, a deranged seaman straight off the Gorton’s box, a hysterical diner denizen lifted straight from the movie, Liza Minnelli working as a waitress, and lonely-hearted schoolmarm Annie Heywood (a hangdog Landry channeling Suzanne Pleshette), who carries a torch for ex-lover Mitch. More to the point are the ridiculously possessive mom (Olive Another, mixing Phyllis Diller and Margaret Hamilton as she handles the plates that float across her cartoon dishwater like boats in sea foam) and the squawking, massing army of birds — both of whom want to pluck Melanie’s eyes out.