Review: Building the Wall (Not That One) in Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds’

Posted May 6, 2018 7:37 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — And you thought the fine-feathered avengers from that Alfred Hitchcock movie were scary. Wait until you get a load of the title characters of another classic called “The Birds,” especially once they start exercising their right to bear arms.

These winged gunslingers show up in Greek director Nikos Karathanos’ rowdy riff on Aristophanes’ “The Birds,” the 2,500-year-old comedy about the quest for utopia, which opened in a cacophony of tweets and caws Sunday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Embodied by a phalanx of defiantly bare-breasted actresses, they advance toward the audience on a wave of fury.

“I will massacre your mama and your auntie and your kids,” one of them says. That’s among the milder threats. These avian beings have had it with a human race that eats them for dinner and wreaks havoc with nature. “Today I am the beast,” they chant in unison. “Today the Law is writ again.”

Yikes! Who knew that building a paradise for egg-layers would be the bloody, messy business it becomes in this artfully anarchic, exhausting production? Then again, it is a homo sapiens who has planted the seeds for this rebellion, and people — being people — have a way of stirring up hatred in the name of progress.

“Anthropos” (meaning human) is a term that the birds of “The Birds” — which is performed in Greek, as well as in nonverbal song and squawk talk, with supertitles — pronounce with fear and loathing. And though the play’s tribal flocks eventually embrace the two two-legged Athenians who wander into their midst bearing proposals for a brave new world, you can understand why “anthropos” is a dirty word.

The longest and wildest of the surviving plays of Aristophanes, the great master of the Old Comedy style, “The Birds” is best known today for introducing “Cloud-cuckoo-land” into our cultural vocabulary. Suggesting an improbable and heavenly alternative universe, Cloud-cuckoo-land is the place we fantasize about when we’re tired of existence on this strife-torn planet.

It is also the as-yet unnamed city-state that Pisthetaerus (Karathanos) and Euelpides (Aris Servetalis), two middle-aged friends from Athens, are looking for when they wander into a labyrinthine forest at the play’s beginning. They have come in search of Epops (Christos Loulis), a onetime Greek monarch who was turned into a hoopoe by the gods, because they too want to shed their human identities and fly.

It is Pisthetaerus, the cleverer of this Laurel-and-Hardy-like pair, who convinces Epops and his followers that, with the right strategy, birds could become masters of the universe, replacing even the gods of Olympus. The first order of business: Build a really, really big wall.

Whoa! Talk of big walls these days inevitably brings to mind a certain tweet-happy American president.

There is a presumably not incidental reference to the merits of grabbing female birds by their “p….” (that’s how the subtitle reads).

The chaos that results from attempts to create new political orders is something with which latter-day Greeks would definitely be familiar. But this adaptation of Aristophanes’ text by Karathanos and Yiannis Asteris should not be construed as a literal-minded commentary on contemporary events.

Part of the Onassis Cultural Center-Athens festival of avian-themed art in New York this month, “The Birds” is less a pointed contemporary satire than a portrait of the atavistic urges that keep people restless and forever on the prowl for self improvement.

“We have treated this play not as plot but as action,” Karathanos writes in a program note.

Dynamic his “Birds” undeniably is, and Dionysiac in a way New Yorkers have seldom seen since the heyday of the boundary-busting Living Theater in the 1960s. Choreographed by Amalia Bennett, with music by Angelos Triantafyllou, “The Birds” often comes across as one sprawling, angry orgy, in which making love and waging war are hard to tell apart.

So, for that matter, are individual genders among the eclectic, high-energy ensemble that embodies the title characters. They have been dressed with free-range imagination by Elli Papageorgakopolou, who also designed the cloud-crowned forest set. (I was especially taken with the old-crone black skirt and humpbacked top, accessorized with support hose and tighty whities, worn by Loulis.)

The bones of Aristophanes’ original central debate have been retained, as have some of the gorgeous catalogs of names used for purposes of description and invocation. Don’t worry too much if you’re not always following the English supertitles, by Orfeas Apergis. (And how could you be, when your eyes are fixed on things like the glittery, sky-scraping cloak modeled by the goddess Iris, played by Galini Hatzipaschali?)

The greatest thrills and chills here come from watching the ways in which the show’s avian population resembles people from news footage caught up in the frenzy of a populist movement.

In that regard, the actors bring to mind Euripides’ “The Bacchae” as much as they do Aristophanes.

Their behavior takes the form of dances of warlike advance and retreat, cluster copulations, a mud wrestling competition (with a chocolate cake instead of mud) and the dreamy batting about of an immense illuminated ball. Two uninterrupted hours of such fare can eventually wear on the nerves.

Nonetheless, “The Birds” offers sights and sounds you won’t catch anywhere else in this city. These include a climactic entrance for the Olympian gods, who mingle like celebrity guests at a cocktail party, and — best of all — the first, full-throated example of the birdsong in which cast members meld their voices into a music beyond harmony.

It isn’t pretty, exactly, but it’s harsh and hypnotic, primal and ethereal at the same time. It is the music of earthly existence, with all its mysterious, tantalizing promises, just waiting to be fulfilled — and thwarted.

Production Notes:

‘The Birds’

Tickets: Through May 13 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, New York City; 718-254-8779, stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 2 hours.

Credits: By Aristophanes; adapted by Nikos Karathanos and Yiannis Asteris; directed by Nikos Karathanos; choreography by Amalia Bennett; sets and costumes by Elli Papageorgakopoulou; lighting by Simon Sarketzis; sound by Kostis Pavlopoulos; composer, Angelos Triantafyllou; production management, Yolanda Markopoulou and Vicky Strataki. Presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse and Onassis Cultural Center-Athens.

Cast: Nikos Karathanos, Aris Servetalis, Christos Loulis, Michalis Sarantis, Vasiliki Driva, Marisha Triantafyllidou, Galini Hatzipaschali, Ektor Liatsos, Maria Diakopanagiotou, Emily Koliandri, Elena Topalidou, Haris Fragoulis, Angelos Triantafyllou, Giannis Sevdikalis, Amalia Bennett, Kostas Berikopoulos, Konstantinos Bibis, Grigoria Metheniti and Foivos Rimenas.