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Beate Hein Bennett
Aristophanes “The Birds”
Photo by Teddy Wolff
May 2 to May 13, 2018
St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water Street, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NY
Presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse and Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens
May 2-5, 8-12 @ 7:30pm; May 6 & 13 @ 5pm; May 12 @ 2pm
Tickets start at $40; www.stannswarehouse.org; (718) 254-8779 and (866) 811-4111
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett May 5, 2018
Manhattanites and other New Yorkers take a reprieve from your usual gripes and ferry on over to a wondrous “Cloudcuckooland” freshly imported from Athens but devised 2500 years ago by that ancient comic, Aristophanes! You will have a fantastic flight of theatrical fancy with some solid political and social underpinnings.
In his program notes, director Nikos Karanthanos writes: “All these years  …people have never ceased leaving, running, going places. As a theatrical troupe we are no different; we have treated this play not as plot but as action…the experience of people always ‘on the run’…of people always migrating. Aristophanes encapsulates all our dreams. His words reveal an entire universe...” And I would add the company takes us into the poetic corporeal origin where theater began---a truly Dionysian explosion of sounds, words, music, and ecstatic movement. This company of Greek actors clearly is rooted in the ancient comic traditions while exploring the text with utterly modern performance idioms. The result is a raucous, joyous extravaganza that celebrates the eternal hope for a better universe where humans and nature can coexist and even the gods would like to join. However, Aristophanes’ comic vision is laced with sardonic humor about the vulgar brutality of life. The direction of Nikos Karanthos and the choreography of Amalia Bennett as well as the music composed by Angelos Triantafyllou give the company free rein in exploring a wide range of performance possibilities—from lyrical beauty to outrageous physical and vocal comedy. While I do not speak Greek (ancient or modern), I appreciated the rich musicality of the language and was able to check on meanings by quickly consulting the English supertitles projected on two sides of the stage space. Yiannis Asteris co-adapted with Nikos Karanthos the Greek text for this production, which was originally performed in 2016 in the ancient amphitheater at Epidauros.
“The Birds” won second prize in 414 BCE in Athens at the yearly City Dionysia Festival during Alcibiades’ rule and ill-fated campaign against Sicily. Alcibiades, once a protégé of Pericles and deemed a brilliant general, had by this time degenerated into being a corrupt demagogue and war-monger who led Athens to final defeat in 413 BCE after the long Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. He had become the embodiment of the tyrant as Athenian democracy had degenerated into oligarchic tyranny. Aristophanes built his sharp comedies around the various political catastrophes that shortened Athenian cultural and political dominance, just as the tragedies of his contemporaries, Sophocles and Euripides, reflected the danger of moral and ethical corruption of the polis and its ruler. It is remarkable how strongly these works resonate in our own political climate. After all, the American “founding fathers” looked to Athenian democracy as the major model for shaping the US Constitution, and so the presently ongoing discussions over a looming constitutional crisis are of note.
The Athenian production at St. Ann’s Warehouse celebrates the brighter aspects of this Aristophanes comedy. The plot is simple. Two Athenian middle-aged citizens, Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, played by Nikos Karathanos and Aris Servetalis, flee the city to look for the mythical ruler Tereus —they want to appeal for his help in reforming the city—and they get lost in the woods. Tereus, the Epops, had been mysteriously transfigured into a Hopoe bird-- in Greek the two words sound almost homonymous. As they are calling for Tereus Epops, his servant who was transfigured into a Woodpecker hears them and brings a rather molted Hopoe on the scene. Michalis Sarantis, the Woodpecker/Messenger impersonates with great physical agility the aggressive but also funny colorful woodpeckerish character while Christos Loulis, with a humped back, trussed tightly in a black skirt and hooded blouse, appears rather pitifully with a hacking cough, cigarette in claw. We are in the world of birds as the chorus makes its festive entrance, chattering, chirping, and hissing; they carry an assemblage of trees that they plant on the set, designed by Elli Papageorgakopoulou who also designed the colorful costumes of skimpy gossamer dresses on some, summery patterned frocks on others, and a variety of colorful leggings on the men. Aphrodite (Marisha Triantafyllidou), occasionally wandering onstage, is the only one with a fantastical red feather costume.
The chorus of twelve birds becomes the main actor as they ultimately accept Pisthetaerus’ plan to build the walled utopian city of Cloudcuckooland that will bring everlasting peace among all creatures, including the gods who got starved out of heaven for lack of sacrifices. The performance of the entire ensemble is remarkable in its absolute commitment and precision, superb musicality, physical stamina and courage. Each member creates an individual blend of bird and human behavior, at times with pathos and other times in satyrical mode. Karathanos and Servetalis, the two Athenians, are a comic team as distinct from each other as Laurel and Hardy—one is brash and lusty, the other skinny and fearful. Galini Hatzipaschali, one of the birds, distinguishes herself separately as Iris, one of the semi-divine figures, who has a scene of humiliation, simultaneously slapstick funny and horrific. Nightingale, the beloved wife of the Epops Hopoe, is performed by Vasiliki Driva with transcendent lyricism as she appeals for “eros” and “agape,” the two Greek concepts of love-- sensuous love and social compassion. Haris Fragoulis, a member of the bird chorus, appears towards the end as a pink suited Prometheus, who had escaped from his divine punishment for having brought fire to the human race; he makes a fearful and passionate appeal to be accepted in Cloudcuckooland and to be protected from the vengeful gods. Many individual characters are drawn from the chorus, another classical tradition. Composer Angelos Triantafyllou, briefly appearing at the end as Heracles, conducts an ensemble of six musicians, including a violinist and a cellist, who command a variety of musical modes from lyrical ballad to rock to rap. In ancient Greek theater music was a central element bound to the text with very specific modal requirements. This production honors this tradition as well and appeals to all the senses. I could imagine myself sitting in Epidauros and enjoying the pure sensual connection to this rich past but here I was at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a new theater in an old ruin, and a perfect place for this production.
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