The Greeks certainly had a word for it – originality.
There's not much to be found in theater they didn't invent. It was an alien stage world to be sure, with its masks, all-male audience, all-knowing chorus, clowns with gigantic leather phalluses, protagonists in platform shoes, but their inventions changed theater forever. The influence of these religious dramatic rites are still with us, maybe more so in comedy. Some things never change.
If there's one comedy that could be the mother of them all, it's Aristophanes' The Birds. Written in 414 B.C., just prior to the tumultuous defeat of godlike smug Athens in the Peloponnesian War, the play is a scathing black comedy about man's insatiable lust for power. Filled with topical references, as were all the Greek plays, it's irreverent and smutty, as it pits man against the gods. Filled with word play and bad puns, stuffed with bawdy cock jokes (this is about “birds” after all) and silly sex references, this antique antic retains its humor down through the millennia. Aristophanes hits the mark time and again. Truth is truth no matter the age.
In this fantasy, two citizens fed up with frantic life in Athens search for a better place. As in every comedy since, the two are mismatched, one a straight man, the other his foil. Think Burns and Allen; Laurel and Hardy; even Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett's Waiting for Godot. All great comedy teams go back to this original goofy duo, Pisthetarius and Euelpides (Luis Galindo and Julia Traber).
Led in their search by two birds (puppets on their hands), the guys are looking for the Great Hoopoe (Carl Masterson), a former king who turned himself into a bird and apparently knows all. He will tell them what to do and where to find happiness. What they find instead is the land of the birds, which is as dysfunctional as the city they just left. (The winged ensemble includes Greg Cote, Lindsay Ehrhardt, Jovan Jackson, Courtney Lomelo, Ben McLaughlin, and Lyndsay Sweeney.)
The two travelers become birds after a fashion, while arrogant Pisthetarius comes up with a screwy idea to make himself king over everyone. The birds will rebel against the useless gods, stealing their burnt sacrifices, rendering them impotent through starvation. The birds build a great fortress in the sky, Cloud Cuckoo Utopia, but during the erection (yet another 4th-grade pun) men intrude upon their paradise: a poet, a scientist, a soothsayer, a politician. They all want something for their service to this new city but are quickly chased away with a stinging slapstick.
The gods send emissaries, too. Stuffy Poseidon, dimwitted Hercules, and one very ancient (and frightfully funny) god, Triballian, seek peace. Pisthetarius outwits them, gaining Zeus' sexy consort Sovereignty in the bargain. She is a blow-up doll. For what it's worth, the gods concede, and greedy, power hungry Pisthetarius reigns, master of all.
Director Philip Hays leads his merry band of players through what looks suspiciously like New York's East Village in the '60s. Macy Lyne's psychedelic costumes are a veritable trip in themselves. Oh, the colors, the colors! Ryan McGettigan's layered nest of a set – the better to perch upon – looks appropriately homespun and is lashed together with strips of cloth. The background wall is a wash of clouds.
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But the best color of all is in the cast, rich and vibrant. No pastels here. They peck ravenously at McGettigan's scenery, being immensely silly and clucking when necessary. They act the avian chorus, dancing and singing punk ditties, until they rush off only to re-enter as even sillier humans or gods. They are all wonderful, but Sweeney in the nonsense role of Triballian is a definite highlight. In fuzzy wig with Brünnhilde helmet, she spouts gibberish like an Oscar recipient.
Low-rent but a social satirist who gave Athens the bird, Aristophanes knew what he was doing. His play received second place at the festival, no doubt because he cut too close to the bone. You can only ruffle so many feathers, before the old buzzards turn on you.
Using J.H. Frere's 19th-century classic translation, augmented by more contemporary reworkings, Hays & Co. has given us a Birds to be proud of. Best of all, he's given us a Birds to laugh at. The Trashmen's “Surfin' Bird” plays: “Well everybody knows the bird is the word...” The Greeks had a gesture for it.
The Birds. continues through April 24 at Classical Theatre Company, 4617 Montrose . For more information, call 713-963-9665 or visit classicaltheatre.org. $10-$25.