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The time seems right for a revival of The Birds, Aristophanes’s fifth-century B.C. comedy about the perils of utopianism and bad leadership. It’s got a classic political-satire setup — as is only right, since Aristophanes set the pattern for all satires to follow. Yet the Onassis Cultural Centre’s visiting Greek adaptation now at St. Ann’s Warehouse has so defanged itself that it seems inert, despite two hours and ten minutes of constant choreography and insistent revelry. Adjusting some of Aristophanes’s original political content makes sense; no one cares about Athenian citizenship wrangles from two-and-a-half-thousand years ago. But jettisoning politics completely? Turning the whole allegorical rumpus into a paean to decadence and dancing and generalized romping? That seems like the ultimate in ignoring the bird you’ve got in your hand.
Director Nikos Karathanos and co-adaptor Yiannis Asteris do spend a great deal of their text (in Greek, with English supertitles) talking generically about Eros and man’s need to fly. This “flight,” in their version, is more like hedonistic abandon — a quest for a very Sixties-seeming Eden. A wily middle-aged human, Pisthetaerus (Karathanos himself), and his mate Euelpides (Aris Servetalis) leave Athens to persuade the birds to set up a city where they can extort sacrifices from the gods. The birds first screech and yell and high-kick aggressively (everything in this show is determined via dance battle) and then ecstatically acquiesce.
The birds are played by an athletic, universally gorgeous company in sneakers and sportswear, who clamber up the trees on Elli Papageorgakopoulou’s set and sing along full-throated to Angelos Triantafyllou’s compositions. They hurl themselves headlong into the show, and the piece’s main asset is the passion we can sense steaming up from their young bodies. Director Karathanos reserves for himself some of Zeus’s traditional perquisites: His mere presence makes the flock tear their clothes off; his character intimidates the birds by kissing the now-topless females; he wrestles the gods’ messenger Iris (Galini Hatzipaschali) in a pile of chocolate pudding. The name Pisthetaerus translates to “persuader of his comrade.” I will leave that there.
Karathanos originally built the production for the great outdoor theater at Epidaurus in Greece, and perhaps The Birds needs to play under the sky rather than in the dark, dark corner of St. Ann’s Warehouse. Like the loveliest set element — a gigantic lighting balloon-moon — the whole thing needs another thousand vertical feet to breathe. Lost in the relatively low gloom, it’s difficult to imagine this cloud-cuckoo-land is a paradise. Instead, the little island of waving palm trees looks like club decoration, where the bumpin’ tunes happen to tell stories of Hoopoe (Christos Loulis) and devastated Nightingale (Vasiliki Driva). Unvarying intensity at close quarters can be exhausting — my notes frequently read, “Why are they yelling here?” — and deliberate vapidity stops being fun after about an hour. Substituting movement and noise for argument and salience are certainly any theatermaker’s right, and many audience members seemed delighted to be invited to the party. But I kept peeping around for something to mean anything — and sorry, sister, that bird had flown.