Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eureka College's "Birds" Take Flight

I'll be honest -- when I first thought about reviewing Eureka College's "The Birds," I was thinking it'd be the parody version of the Alfred Hitchcock movie that's been done on stage in Chicago. I was really looking forward to seeing how they dropped all those birds on their actors' heads.

It only occurred to me that it was more likely to be the Greek comedy a few days ago. Even though Aristophanes was going for political and philosophical humor and Hitchcock was going for horror, they do have their central fowl in common, and there is pecking and attacking of humans in both. But that's pretty much where they part ways.

Aristophanes (AKA "The Father of Comedy") wrote his "Birds" in about 414 BC to lampoon Athenian society. In the play, two Athenians frustrated by the rules and regulations and financial obligations of their lives set out on a journey to reach the kingdom of the birds far above their heads. They're looking for a place with no debt, no taxes, just the joy of being free. In other words, they're kind of like the teabaggers of Ancient Greece.

After some difficulty, they get to meet the King of the Birds himself, and the wilier of the two, Pithetearus, comes up with a plan to elevate the birds, so long pawns of humans down below and gods up above, to the ultimate status -- rulers of the universe. He (or she, in the Eureka College production) proposes that they build a bird city to block the gods' access to earth as well as demanding a share of their tribute from the humans below.

Things go swimmingly until certain unwelcome folks from Athens pop up. Once again, Pithetearus comes to the rescue, convincing the birds to round up and dispose of the grabby Athenian poet, prophet, lawyer, tax agent and real estate developer before they can ruin the new city of Cloudcuckooland, too. And then they have to face off with the gods themselves, who are not pleased to have their airspace cut off.

This style of ancient comedy isn't easy for today's actors or audiences, but guest director Mark Baer does his best to make it all seem current and fresh, and costume designer Linda Schuerman deserves special mention for the bright and varied array of capes and ponchos and headgear that makes up the bird outfits, from the king (a crowned Hoopoe) to a red-winged blackbird, a pink flamingo and a toucan that looks like Groucho Marx.

Becky Collins and Cat Davis are the Athenian ne’er-do-wells (called “slackers” in the program) who put the whole plot into motion, and they’re both as energetic and fizzy as they need to be. Others in the cast who make an impression are Blisse Stanford and Chris Funk as mouthy (beaky?) birds, Justin O. Stewart and Betsy Snobeck as pesky troublemakers from Athens, and Jacob Coombs and Jason Hasty as amusingly quirky Olympians.

“The Birds” is played for fun, and it works pretty darn well, considering it’s 2400 years old and most of its cast is hovering around 20. Catch it while you can -- "The Birds" continues at Eureka College's Pritchard Theatre through February 28th.

Becky Collins, Cat Davis, Hilary Schneider, Kerri Rae Hinman, Erin Cochran, Erica Lawver, Sable VanDermay-Kirkham, Hillary Thomas, Blisse Stanford, Chris Funk, Kelly Beaty, Jacob Coombs, Jason Hasty, Sami Hubbard, Betsy Snobeck, Justin O. Stewart.

Production Staff:
Director: Mark Baer
Assistant Director: Nicole Zare
Set Designer: Kenneth Johnson
Lighting Designer: Grace Maberg
Costume Designer: Linda Schuerman


  1. What a delightful review. How thrilling that Eureka is doing ancient Greek comedy!! Likewise, with Lysistrata at Illinois Wesleyan! Those ancients knew what they were talking about! Still pertinent today.

  2. I haven't really seen a lot of Greek comedy. Mostly drama. So this was fun! Plus I was impressed that the lead actress was only a freshman. Pretty tough stuff for a freshman.

    I missed Lysistrata at IWU. Did you see it? What did you think?

  3. I wish I could see it. I think I've read all 11 Aristophaneses, but I've seen only Lysistrata, and that was at IU in 1965. (I was lucky to go on opening night before administration made them take out the obscenities. It has a lot of obscenity -- all Aristophanes does, though if memory serves, The Birds has less of it than most.)

  4. This "Birds" had none that I recall. But it WAS at Eureka College, which is, I believe, affiliated with the Disciples of Christ Church, so they may've eliminated it. This was a version translated (or adapted or whatever) by Walter Kerr, and it only ran 1:45 including an intermission, so I'm guessing there was some serious cutting happening. Maybe Holly can drop by and tell us.

    Love the "Aristophaneses," btw.

  5. I knew about the Kerr version -- done before he became a theater critic I think. And the story being idealistic (though satirical), any naughty bits are minor indeed (like one of the travelers being so scared at the arrival of one of the birds that he loses bladder control), and in fact omittable without betrayal of the author. I'll check my own translation at home to confirm that.

    Plays of this period are longish one-acts, so the time you give doesn't seem out of line for a complete rendition.

  6. Ah, okay. I am used to the Greek dramas being longish affairs. Or maybe they just felt that way. ;-)

  7. The Kerr version is pretty squeaky clean. We were talking about how different it is from Lysistrata. To the best of my knowledge the director didn't do any major cuts to the show. I will say that Eureka isn't afraid to stage curses or raunchy humor. (Although we may not do "Killer Joe" justice). Just turns out this year is a "fluffy" production year.