Critical readings of Aristophanes’ The Birds, a comedy about two Athenians building a city in the sky, vary widely. Some view it as political allegory, drawing connections to contemporary democratic revolutions in Athens. Others see in “Cloudcuckooland” a vision of utopia. Still others argue that it is a literary satire on gigantomachy (Google it). While attempting to assemble the diverse critical heritage in his book on the playwright, Douglas M. MacDowell writes, “Birds more than any of the other plays has suffered from over-interpretation.”
Nevertheless, one would expect that each individual understanding of the play is internally consistent. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens’ production of Birds, which recently ended its run at St. Ann’s Warehouse. At times, it takes the utopian route, with its cast gleefully shedding its clothing while inviting the audience onstage for a brief (but not brief enough) bacchanal. This apparently comes out of director Nikos Karathanos’ desire to treat the play “not as plot but as action, as a weird and outrageous experience, as a silent movie trying to become a ‘talkie.'” But there are also echoes of our current political climate, and one character is interrupted just as he is about to encourage another to “Grab ’em by the p—.” Perhaps this is what Mr. Karathanos means when he writes, “We want to speak for those who’ve been forced, through pain and ill treatment, to live on borders.”
The impression one gets, then, is that each idea, once suggested, was immediately adopted, inconsistency be damned. Elliptic references to Trump, giddy Dionysian revels, and a hodgepodge of other ideas mix into an intellectually peripatetic mess. And for some reason, the whole “birds” thing is dropped about twenty minutes in, with most actors only incidentally impersonating the animal they are supposedly portraying. Ultimately, in trying to include everything, Mr. Karathanos and his cast capture nothing.