Naked as a jaybird
Humanity gets a good look at itself in Chico State’s production of ancient Greek comedy The Birds
“You can’t blame them for the accidents of birth,” go-between Hoopoe exclaims, surrounded by his fellow Cloudcuckoolanders and castigated for bringing two human beings into their blissful, carefree kingdom somewhere far up beyond the sky. The residents of Cloudcuckooland, you see, are birds. Somewhat anthropomorphized birds, perhaps, yet birds nonetheless. And they are understandably ill at ease around Homo sapiens.
“Man is a liar!” one ruffled bird chirps, pointedly.
The human beings in question are called Makemedo and Goodhope. And the only reason these two men have traveled to Cloudcuckooland is to escape the madness that has become civilization. Back there, war is considered desirable. Back there, the courts, those supposed havens of sublime justice, are tied up with the most petty and infantile of grievances. Back there, politicians promise change but rest on the laurels of their deceit, schools seem generally useless, and everywhere basic civility has been usurped by arrogant self-interest.
Welcome to Athens, Greece, circa 400 B.C.E.
And if some of those problems from over 2,400 years ago still sound very familiar, you’re on the right track. What renders Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds timeless is the simple fact that it depicts humanity accurately, even through its broad comedic strokes. The pointed humor and silly puns only reinforce the notion that, while we have accomplished much as a species, we humans still have a long way to go until we are truly civilized.
Which is one of the reasons why The Birds resonated so strongly with director and Chico State drama instructor Cynthia Lammel.
The play is to be the next production presented by Chico State Drama Department. One evening prior to a rehearsal, Lammel explains that it seemed time the department produced a classic Greek play. After all, the drama history classes instruct students about ancient Greek theater, but it is not often that a chance comes along actually to perform it. She had wanted to do Euripides ’ Electra but decided that there seemed to be a bit too much hate and vengeance already in the current atmosphere.
“I just thought, you know, do we really need to go there?” Lammel says. “We need something lighter. And going through the [classical Greek] comedies, of all the ones that I read, this seemed the most plot-driven. And it was the closest that [Aristophanes] gets to our [modern] form [of comedy].”
Lammel admits that she was forced to cut away a lot of the poetics. “So much of it is topical,” she explains, meaning the references were significant mostly to the period they were written in. However, with what remains, she and her talented group have had a little fun. They have set to music many of the characters’ more poetic utterances, choreographed the bird chorus’ movements and proclamations, and have happily thrown in anachronisms as they have seen fit.
Watching a run-through last Tuesday evening, one often laughs aloud. The balance between the familiar and the absurd is pretty well managed, and while some of the bird-related puns border on grade-school level, there is enough of them swooping down on you that you simply have to laugh. The cast is in its street clothes, yet the blocking, the choreography and the general projection are quite good. Familiar local theater faces Marcus Sams (as Goodhope) and Troy Anthony Harris (as Hoopoe) and Jarrod Rothstein (as Makemedo), Taryne Moyse (as the bird chorus leader), and Katie Suverekrop, Catherine Nelson and Ginger Kimura (as the bird chorus) all manage an enjoyable comedic chemistry. If this is only a run-through one week before opening, speculation on the actual performance brings a smile to one’s face.