Theater Review: Aristophanes’ The Birds, Gone Cuckoo in the Best Possible Way

By
Speak, amuse. Photo: Teddy Wolff

We all have that one Onion article that makes us laugh hysterically, then quietly question everything we’ve done with our life. Mine is “New Evidence Reveals Ancient Greeks Immediately Regretted Inventing Theater.” Some days, especially these days, this whole business of adult dress-up, so often marketed as righteous and revolutionary and sold at exorbitant prices, leaves you ready to peace out and try the Viggo Mortensen-in-Captain Fantastic lifestyle. And then a play comes along and hits you like a water balloon full of fluorescent paint. It’s surprising and messy and bright and wild and just makes you want to party. And its audacious, celebratory silliness, its sheer irreverent vitality, actually feels more revolutionary, more slyly political and politically effective than 99 percent of the productions you’ve seen that have puffed up their chests and flailed their fists and hammered on seriously about Serious Things.

The Birds, visiting St. Ann’s Warehouse in a production from the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens, is my current theatrical deterrent from running off into the wilderness. Funny, since it’s about a pair of guys who do just that. Yes, this is the play by Aristophanes — maybe it was on your Theater 101 syllabus, if it wasn’t edged out by the more serious Sophocles or Euripides. It’s almost 2,500 years old, a fact that deserves its own, Wow. It’s a weird, raunchy, scattershot comedy that’s 400 years older than Jesus and yet brims with tropes that we still recognize and employ — and that it was helping to invent: the Laurel and Hardy-esque duo; the comic anthropomorphization of animals and animalization of humans (Bojack Horseman, you can thank Aristophanes); the satire of human folly and the corrupted pursuit of happiness; shameless dance breaks and fight scenes because, you know, Are you not entertained?!

Director Nikos Karathanos — who with Yiannis Asteris adapted the ancient text and also plays one of its central roles, the jolly, wily Pisthetaerus — has approached The Birds not as a linear narrative (which it isn’t, really) but as, in his words, “a weird and outrageous experience.” The production is actually the centerpiece of Birds: A Festival, a citywide series of exhibitions, talks, concerts, and films all circling around the themes of Aristophanes’ play — and that descriptive subtitle in fact suits the production itself. With a physically fearless ensemble of 19 actors — including, along with Karathanos, the show’s composer and choreographer doing double-duty, and a fantastic onstage band that enlivens every moment with Angelos Triantafyllou’s evocative, energetic score — the play is a festival; a heady, loopy, two-hour jamboree that’s kind of like a mental mosh pit. Afterwards you feel a little strange and a little beat up and very, very buzzed.

The Birds’ story, such as it is, is about two dudes: Pisthetaerus and Euelpides or — as Orfeas Apergis’s very funny, often anachronistic English supertitles render them — Mr. Convincer and Mr. Hoper. Karathanos plays Convincer, the bluff, pontificating Hardy role, and Aris Servetalis is his perfectly pitched Laurel counterpart: skinny, doubting, prone to panic. As the play begins, we hear a few eerie piano chords repeating in the dark, then markedly un-eerie voices making a series of wacky calls: “Yoo-hoo!” and other less recognizable, more bird-like noises. The tonal contrast immediately tickles the funny bone. You can hear the audience begin to titter, some nervously, as their brains try to reconcile this melancholy atmospheric music and these silly human squawks. It’s a smart beginning to a comedy that will keep us a little on edge throughout. Karathanos realizes that the most uncontrollable laughter often lives very close to fear in our brains — that sense, all too rare in theater, of truly not knowing what might happen next.

The squawkers are Convincer and Hoper, who eventually make their tentative entrances into the shadowy space. (Simon Sarketzis’s lights keep the play generally dark throughout, and I often wished for a little more variety and vitality in that area of the play’s design; the production began its life outdoors at the ancient, mind-bogglingly epic Theatre of Epidaurus, where it may have made sense to stick to a simple, footlight-heavy lighting scheme.) Hoper and Convincer have ventured out into the forest in search of someone. As the two clowns stand around waiting, swapping absurd banter, I couldn’t help thinking that here was Beckett more than two millennia before Beckett. Or perhaps Beckett simply knew what Aristophanes knew eons before him and what Peter Brook articulated after: All you need for theater is an empty space and a human being or two, waiting for something to happen.

The clowns eventually find what they’re looking for, a bird called the Hoopoe (a gruff, delightful Christos Loulis who, like many of the actors, loses more and more clothing as the play goes along). Hoopoe and his servant, the Woodpecker (the gymnastic, motor-mouthed Michalis Sarantis) apparently used to be people. Now they’re birds. (How? Don’t get caught up about it.) Life is much sweeter in the forest, or so Convincer and Hoper think, and they’ve arrived with a proposition. They’re sick of their city, sick of the grim daily grind of humanity, and they want to build a new utopia — a kingdom of dreams suspended in the clouds. Its name? Cloud-cuckoo-land! Its promise? Ease and happiness for human and bird alike.

That’s pretty much the play. The clowns make their pitch. We meet a bunch of birds, suspicious at first and then — when Mr. Convincer lives up to his name and tells them that in this new paradise, they’ll be gods — noisily supportive. We meet some gods too (one played by the striking Paralympian, Giannis Sevdikalis). Once the birds have built Cloud-cuckoo-land, it seems to present Olympus with a little too much competition. Thus the fight scenes — including a ludicrous, slip-’n-slide wrestling match in which Convincer and the messenger goddess Iris duke it out in a pile of chocolate pie. And this is what the show’s really about: not plot but play.

Watertight narrative ain’t for the Birds, but joyful, saucy mischief is. From the chocolate-flavored throwdown (which Karathanos and Galini Hatzipaschali as Iris hurl themselves into with physical gusto that would set off the safety alarms in most American theaters; and the sequence would suffer for it); to the athletic, sweaty dances by Amelia Bennett; to Elli Papageorgakopoulou’s whimsical island of a set (which resembles a children’s storybook even as her colorful-but-not-classy costumes — the birds look like Salvation Army shoppers who went partying in Ibiza — evoke raunchy adult comedy); to the enormous, glowing moon-like balloon that’s brought out into the space and swung above the audience, while the cast leaps and bats at it like delighted kids … all these gestures pulse with pure theatrical delight. And these days, delight feels like defiance. Finding things to celebrate and people to celebrate with feels like its own political act, infinitely more necessary than another serious, self-righteous slog.

So often while watching a play, I find myself thinking of a line from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, my favorite childhood TV show. The perennially stressed Rabbit is organizing some kind of shindig and bursts out: “This is a party! Who said anything about fun?!” Lots of American theater today seems to be made by Rabbits — smart, well-meaning, serious-minded people who forget that at the heart of their form lies a festival; not Athena but Dionysus. The Ancient Greeks gave us politics and theater and in 2018 both are apt enough to feel, to put it mildly, regrettable. But with The Birds, some of their descendents have turned a nearly 2,500-year-old text into a jubilant full-throttle carnival of the senses — one that feels, in its very makeup, inclusive, radical, and gloriously alive. It’s a rough world (for Aristophanes too: He wrote his comedy in the midst of the Peloponnesian War). Thank the gods that some plays still bring the party.

The Birds is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through May 13.

Theater Review: Aristophanes’ The Birds, Gone Cuckoo