When Devised is Too Devised

The Birds immediately impresses with a uniform style that’s anything but uniform, pulling off the tricky combination of quirky esotericism.

Unfortunately, style should always be in service of — or double as — substance, and in the Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens’ radical take on Aristophanes’ The Birds, which St. Ann’s Warehouse imported to New York from Greece (yes, Aristotle Onassis serves as the company’s namesake and posthumous patron), this style is too often merely an (admittedly) entertaining distraction from its intellectual probing.

Damn near every element of the production contributes to this inviting style that pervades the 21st century text, which seems both anachronistically modern to the source material’s antiquity while also sharing — and thus being in a timeless conversation with — its core themes and essence. From Eli Papageorgakopoulou’s set and costumes (the latter of which boasts perhaps the most genius and inclusive representation of Zeus walking on thunderbolts in recent memory) to Amalia Bennett’s evocative choreography, Simon Sarketzis’ stark lighting, Angelos Triantafyllou’s crucial music — both of the incidental and full-song variety, played by an onstage band — and of course the perfectly tone-matched ensemble, it’s a stylish feast for the eyes (no small feat), adding up to theatrical madcap mayhem deftly overseen by director Nikos Karathanos.

Which doesn’t mean he necessarily makes sense of the inscrutably scatterbrained text. These flights of design fancy commonly feel like diversionary excursions, hammering home one basic idea at a time instead of successive moments developing and deepening them collectively in relation to each other. Detached from being rooted too deeply in the subtext, the design flourishes eventually reek of overindulgence in such a repeated way that it ultimately becomes tired and honestly boring, overstaying its welcome ingenuity at an intermission-less two hours.

Which is a bummer because the show does touch upon some legitimately intriguing ideas, especially regarding the migratory and imperialist dimensions of human nature, and how they affect our conceptual and practical formation and formulation of society. But ultimately, these juicy topics end up feeling scattershot, in desperate need of a more coherently-communicated narrative to focus the proceedings. In an ideal merging of text and performance, a clear style is utilized not as a spectacular side show, but as a means of clarifying such cognitive roaming. Subtextual ideas are best when hung on the clothing line that is a narrative, thus the reason The Birds flies highest, and is the most thought provoking, when it sticks closely to Aristophanes’ general story structure.

But the theme of human nature — broached through the prism of non-human (not the same as inhuman, humanity’s speciality) entities — is simply too grand in abstract scope to consistently engage a human’s wondering, wandering, and ultimately waning attention span. It’s unwieldy past the point of being able — or even wanting — to figure it all out. 

I’ll end on a positive note, because I did appreciate the opportunity to experience overseas theatre not from London: after being constantly spoon-fed English-language translations, adaptations, and inspirations based on these theatrical forms of antiquity (right on down to The Birds‘ concluding deus ex machina followed by a bacchanalia), it flat-out matters to hear such a foundational genre in its original language.

Similarly, if seen at the legendary Epidaurus — which premiered so many of these Great Greek Texts, and served as a temporary home for this production — many of the production’s flaws probably would’ve been immediately forgiven. That’s the benefit of, if not a site-specific venue, then at the very least a site-elevated one. St. Ann’s continues to exhibit its infinite mutability by re-arranging its customary seating arrangement to somewhat call to mind Epidaurus’ architectural semicircle, but it’s just not as effective or affecting as the real thing.

The same can be said of this version of The Birds‘ relationship to Aristophanes’ original.

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