Two middle-aged men from Thebes, exhausted and disheveled, trail into the woods to live amongst the feathered inhabitants of the clouds. They have been dissatisfied by their earthly existence, and seek to go a few echelons up on the Maslow hierarchy of needs: something alternative. You know how it goes.
It’s a story as old as humanity, across every culture: human’s pursuit of a higher level of existence.
Nikos Karathanos’ massive ensemble hails from Athens and brings to American audiences an aviary in its original tongue. The production infuses Aristophanes’ ancient texts with an energy that’s both present and timeless: in spite of the language barriers, the message is accessible, or at least up to a point.
We are introduced to the pair of humans, Pisthetaerus (Karathanos, the director himself steps into this role that’s a proxy for the audience) and Eulpides (Aris Servetalis) as they stumble into the playing space in a manner that’s not unlike the luckless duo in Waiting for Godot. They’re looking for Epops (Christos Loulis), the apparent leader of the bird folks, as well as the first human who departed civilization. But before they can be connected with the main event, Woodpecker (Michalis Sarantis) greets them. Sarantis’ excellent comedic timing and physical dexterity transforms him into a marvelous presence and eases us into the rhythm of the piece: everything in exaggeration yet natural.
Of course, the birds wouldn’t simply accept the two strangers as their own without protest. Many a debate arises as Epops attempts to delegate between the humans and the birds, being the representative of both worlds. The clash between the two forces reaches a crescendo when the swarm of birds strips Epops of his attire, leaving him bare and in human form once again.
Karathanos’ interpretation of The Birds sticks closely to the original plot: the winged aboriginals of the mountaintop (signified by an illuminated cloud) ultimately accept the newcomers, and together they decide to build a city halfway between Thebes and the gods in the sky. Soon enough, more humans see the appeal and follow suit, which is too bad for the gods, for it means they are no longer receiving sacrifices and libations from the city. The gods are hungry, or, to adhere to the thoroughly modern aesthetics of the production, the gods are hangry.
The aesthetics are not the only thoroughly modern, and indeed current aspect of the production. This tale from the Theban woods becomes increasingly and hauntingly an American allegory. The way our bird-folks want to distinguish their city is by building a wall to ward off “the others.” This innocent inanimate object, this supposedly neutral concept, has become a loaded one in Trump America. And when Iris arrives as Zeus’ daughter and messenger to announce the gods’ fury, it almost becomes a political commentary on the ineffectiveness of the wall. “I see a round wall,” she says, “but the top and the bottom are both wide open so it never occurs to me to find a door.” Indeed, when has a wall ever prevented a revolution?
However, one of the most disturbing moments also happens at Iris’ intrusion. Pisthetaerus, now wielding more power than ever, attacks and insults the proxy from the gods until she’s stripped, drenched in filth, flopping around like a bird shot down from the clouds.
What’s disappointing, or to say the least, hasty, about what could have been a maniacal wild ride for all the best reasons, was the ex-machina resolution. The gods enter after much anxiety on the part of the birds, and instead of a revolt, we see them being accepted with ease, as the new, utopian society continues into a joyous dance party.
It left me confused, having to constantly recalibrate and re-evaluate just what the birds as well as the gods stand for in this updated tale of ages.
Nevertheless, the production is a magnificent work of beauty. It’s the kind of show that will transport you into the world it creates in a sincere and visceral way. The cast’s evocative performances will resonate with you and bring out something primal: you can somehow understand their guttural birdcalls and decipher all of their emotions that cannot be translated into any human languages.
After all, this is also a play about nature and humans’ awe in nature. The show’s inclusive cast is a true testament to that as well: it’s noteworthy to point out that there are visibly disabled actors amongst the cast, whose beauty is celebrated as much as, if not more than the rest.
Aristophanes’ The Birds was never a simple story to begin with, and it will continue to spark much debate, philosophically and politically. Karathanos’ version is an ambitious attack on the text and a beautifully crafted piece of theatre. It is so specifically Greek that it becomes universal, and the importance of language becomes almost minimal as we absorb the story through its superb physical movements.
The Birds runs to May 13, 2018. More production info can be found here.