Aristophanes' 414 B.C. comedy reveals some intriguingly dark linings in PushPush's production. Director Daniel Pettrow smartly plays against some of the silliest humor, while his consistently inventive cast makes The Birds achieve takeoff.
Wearing stylish neckties like fugitives from the office-park rat race, Makemedo (Marcelo Banderas) and Goodhope (Isma'il Ibn Conner) abandon the corruption and drudgery of the Athenian city-state to find an easier life. They want to be literally as free as the birds, so they track down the famed Hoopoe (Trent Merchant), who rules the worldwide roost, to request permission to join them. The Hoopoe's drawn-out birdcall includes everything from sexual groans to "Polly wanna cracker!"
Makemedo addresses a hostile avian gathering and suggests that the birds take over the world. If they build a vast, suborbital city -- dubbed "Cloudcuckooland" -- to separate earth from the heavens, they can block the smoke of the offerings humans burn to their deities: "Stop the smoke and starve them out."
Makemedo makes the case that, with the birds in command, things would run more smoothly for god and man alike. But his arguments, however lighthearted, sound suspiciously like justifications for dictatorship (especially coming so soon after PushPush presented Macbeth as a tale of contemporary regime change). Makemedo becomes king of Cloudcuckooland, and though he's a sympathetic nebbish, he could inevitably become a tyrant. Having a name pronounced "make-me-do" doesn't bode well.
But the Birds'-eye view of human affairs suggests that any change would be for the better. As soon as Makemedo establishes Cloudcuckooland, he's beset by representatives of society's most irritating institutions -- a tax collector, a lawyer, a religious prophet, etc. -- all seeking bribes or payment. This Swiftian indictment becomes the play's funniest sequence, thanks to Merchant's quick-change versatility in all the roles. He even gives a folk-singing poet a little of Jack Black's hilarious grandstanding.
Translator Peter Meineck cleverly updates some of the ancient Greek stage conventions and treats the audience as the chorus of birds, identifying every spectator as a different species. But he goes overbird -- I mean, overboard -- with the fowl puns, as if he can't let a line go by without making reference to nest eggs or peckers. Some of the ancient Greek inside jokes don't translate well, like the gibberish-spouting barbarian gods (whom Meineck dubs "Jerkoffalots").
Fortunately, Pettrow understands that outrageously broad humor often calls for straight-faced acting. Banderas and Conner make a hilariously deadpan duo, firing banter rapidly back and forth but scarcely batting their eyes at supernatural hijinks. When Conner, an intense, magnetic performer, breaks into sudden dance steps, it's like seeing Colin Powell do the Macarena during a United Nations address. Banderas, with his prominent forehead and compact features, physically makes a natural comic, smoldering with a slow burn when bothered by birdbrains such as Joan Croaker's various messengers.
Rather than sport actual wings, beaks and feathers, the bird characters (including honorary ones like Makemedo), wear white boxers and undershirts, leaving their plumage to our imaginations. And why not? Underwear is funny. With such high-speed invention, confident comedic timing, and a running time of roughly an hour, The Birds plucks up its audience's spirits. You leave thinking, "I feel like chicken tonight."
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