Robert Cushman - National Post
Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ont.
There's only one thing harder to revive in the modern theatre than ancient Athenian tragedy, and that's ancient Athenian comedy. The Stratford Festival this year is giving us both, and it has begun what I think of as Greek Week with a comedy, thereby going where very few major companies have gone before.
Aristophanes' The Birds is, like all his extant plays and presumably like all the vanished ones as well, an essay in the farcical-satirical-musical-lyrical. Its Stratford production honours this medley and comes up with its own -- a mixture of the beautiful and the boring.
Greek tragedy is comparatively accessible to us because it tells a story. Aristotle, a model critic who observed practices rather than making rules, declared that plot was the soul of tragedy. Greek comedy, by that criterion, is soulless; it has situations, usually one per play, but hardly builds a narrative out of them. It is also soulless as we might use the word, because it isn't interested in character, either. Its people are front men, for ideas or for routines.
Aristophanes wrote his plays during the war between Athens and Sparta that ended in the ruin of both. Typically, his plays show us beleagured Athenian citizens trying either to knock some sense into their society's head or, more often, to opt out altogether. The Birds gives us a couple of these voluntary refugees, Pisthetairos and Euelpides, who set out in search of Tereus, a mythological malefactor whom the gods turned into a bird, a hoopoe, and who they hope might point them in the direction of a superior city. Finding themselves surrounded by birds -- of radiant plumage, suspicious mind and hostile intent -- they have a brainwave: Why don't the birds found their own aerial city, independent of both men and gods? Their hosts welcome this idea with open wings, and elect, or at least accept, Pisthetairos as their ruler. They call their new realm Cloudcuckooland, a name that has rung in legend ever since.
Before becoming the birds' masters, our two Athenians were in imminent danger of being their victims, trussed up to have their eyes pecked out. Dressed here in khaki, like desert explorers, they somewhat resemble Hope and Crosby in the old Road movies, awaiting immersion in the cannibal pot before, with one bound, they were free. And indeed, though theoretically social equals, they have the makings of a classic master-servant duo: Pisthetairos the pompous and Euelpides the put-upon. The latter, as usual, is the more grateful role, and Bernard Hopkins makes a lovely job of it, alternately downcast and joyful, and binding the modes together with a George Formby accent. He finally melts our hearts when, dispatched by his friend on yet another errand, he turns and says, with genuine tears, "I wish to God you'd do some of the work." Then he goes off and, though the play is only half done, never comes back. Nor is he even mentioned. Aristophanes, you see, does not subscribe to our sentimental notions of human interest. For us, though, who are saddled with them, Euelpides' absence dampens the play almost beyond repair.
Anyway, after he's gone, Pisthetairos receives a series of visitors who represent the worst elements of his old home, and of course want a place in the new one. They include a priest, a poet, a quack scientist and, plague of plagues, a professional informer. Pisthetairos out-talks them all, and even fends off a challenge from the gods, largely by appealing to their greed. He has a barbecue going, and Herakles, one of the Olympian delegates, is super-heroically hungry.
Scholarly opinion has it that Pisthetairos is satirized as an exploiter figure, instituting a new tyranny as bad as the old. I don't get it. He comes across as the underdog enthroned, cheered on by his author. I see from the program that the great Bert Lahr played the role in an American production, and it needs a clown of that calibre (though I can't think of any equivalent in the Canadian theatre, except perhaps Heath Lamberts) to hold the show together. Keith Dinicol here is heavy-going, though I have to salute his handling of what is, after all, the play's central moment. "Why not be birds?" he asks rhetorically for himself and partner, and then -- as both the wonder and the practicality of it strike him -- he says it again, hushed: Why not be birds?
His ponderousness elsewhere infects, or at least is shared by, the rest of the cast. What read in Dudley Fitts' translation like snappy cross-talk exchanges seem, in Nikos Dionysios' production, to go on forever. There are some fine visuals, notably in the huge costume creations -- traditional masks, robes and platform soles -- that Teresa Przybylski has run up for the various divinities, but they, too, weigh the action down. I except the more delicate apparition of Iris, the messenger goddess, who appears hovering on wires and suspended from a crane, this time of the non-avian variety.
But then "Why not be birds?" The choruses -- sung, danced and spoken by the birds themselves -- make a very persuasive case for it. The radiance that classicists have always found in these passages comes through in Fitts' verse, whether delicate or ribald. Dionysios' choreography, not actually very Dionysian, isn't up to much except in its more menacing, foot-stomping or beak-crunching moments, but the singing is lovely, and though Michael Vieira's music is uneven, at its best it's ravishing. When these elements come together, they make you catch your breath; you feel in touch with something great.
Aristophanes' plays are like topical revues, and modern productions, when they happen at all, often fillet his texts and use them as pretexts, for their own agendas. There is little of that here, other than a studded rocker costume for a passing parricide and an interpolated reference to weapons of mass destruction. Part of me applauds this fidelity to the original, full of references to local celebrities who aren't even in the history books; another part suspects that we might better honour the spirit of Aristophanes by being less obedient to the letter. He was a free-wheeling writer and we should maybe free-wheel right over him, though some pretty horrible things have been known to happen when people try. Anyway here it is, The Birds, and well worth catching, as long as you go prepared.
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