Jazzed, Snazzed, and Up-to-Date ‘Birds’ Soars

Carlton E. Forbes

The cast of “The Birds” entertains audiences at the Agassiz Theatre this past weekend. Every year the Harvard Classics Club translates a classical play and puts it on the stage. Pop culture references abound in this year’s show.

Witty, sharp, and hilarious—these words fit when Aristophanes first wrote “The Birds” in 414 B.C. This past weekend, April 27 to 29, at the Agassiz Theatre, the words fit again—but the Harvard Classics Club elevated these definitions up to a whole new level.

Directed by Claire E. Catenaccio ’07 and produced by Paul D. Franz ’07 and Alexandra M. Helprin ’07, the Classics Club production boasted not only a primarily student-translated version of the Greek text but also new witticisms and pop culture allusions fitted to the modern day.

Aristophanes, or any Greek playwright for that matter, might easily be considered dry entertainment for college students on a weekend night. But the Classics Club stupendously jazzed up the 2500-year-old play and had the audience appreciatively guffawing every other minute. It was the drab gray of the past spray-painted into a florescent, glittery, upbeat production—without losing reverence or appreciation for Aristophanes’ original classic.

“The Birds,” as its title hints, is in fact, all about birds. Two Athenians, who are on the run because they owe money, flee to the birds in a desperate attempt to evade their debts. The ambitious Peisetaerus (Alex N. Chase-Levenson ’08) and sidekick Euelpides (Fred C. Brown ’06) soon devise a bizarre plan to found a kingdom of birds under his rule and to take over Olympus, with the help of Tereus (Rory N. Kulz ’08) the human leader of the birds.

Most impressive was how the Classical Club managed the difficult task of inserting so much new sass without detracting from Aristophanes’ original atmosphere. New peppy rhymes, cheeky dialogues of sexual innuendo, and even a short dance clip of The Robot unobtrusively sidled into line among the lyrical lines of the translation.

The War on Terror, Yale University, and the “avian flu”—all were cunningly brought out onto the stage. When a flock of angry birds closed in around the enterprising Peisetaerus and Euelpides, a hysterical Euelpides broke into song, in a desperate attempt to placate their attackers. His choice of song?—“Feed the Birds” from Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”

The performers casually took advantage of their feathers to crack out light puns—“right-wing politics” anyone? The Classics Club may have gone overboard with crude sexual humor, but they redeemed themselves with cute and clever literary allusions to “Hamlet” and “The Odyssey.”

Indisputably, the performers took advantage of a great script. Not only did they articulately roll their tongues around lengthy rhymes chock full of SAT vocabulary, but they used flamboyant inflection and expression, so that the average audience member was able to understand and enjoy the long-winded bouts of Aristophanes.

Perfectly deserving of his lead role, Chase-Levenson was a riot and every inch the conniving, enterprising Athenian—smirking as he stalked around in his Greek sandals, fantasizing about the perks of power.

The few fleeting dance scenes were more chaotic than choreographed, but they oddly fit the image of a city of fluttering birds. And although not spectacular, the set (designed by Katherine E.M. Hudson of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) and costumes (designed by Alexis M. Kusy ’07) were a commendable amateur attempt that reflected both creativity and an effort to spice up pillars, togas, and feathers. When it came down to it, however, the physical appearance of the cast and stage became trivial in the shadow of impressive acting and a sensational script.

In short, the Classics Club produced a rendition of “The Birds” that is traditional enough to satisfy Classics buffs and snazzy enough to qualify as weekend entertainment for the average public.

—Reviewer April B. Wang can be reached at abwang@fas.harvard.edu.