It’s no use comparing Aristophanes’ The Birds to Culture Clash’s adaptation. Instead, sit back and enjoy the show. It’s an event of pure entertainment and promise.
In Aristophanes’ plot, a pair of city guys stumble upon a place where birds talk and think. The birds aren’t too bright and in short order give over control of their ideal city in the clouds, Cloud Cuckoo Land. Outsiders promptly come calling wanting a piece of the action. They are taunted, tormented, or whipped off stage for their labors. Cloud Cuckoo Land becomes more powerful than Olympus, forcing the old gods to send a trio to negotiate a settlement. The gods capitulate totally to the man-bird new order and give up Zeus’ girlfriend in the bargain.
Culture Clash keeps the basic absurdities of Aristophanes’ fantastic plot, then populates Cloud Cuckoo Land with 21st century characters like Dick Cheney, Antonio Villaraigosa, and the frenetic pace of high teatro. Costumers Herbert Siguenza and Christina Wright manage to put feathers on shoulders without looking silly, and Francisco Hernandez does a great job littering the stage with large balloons so they float about the actors’ feet as in billowing clouds.
The highlight of the performance comes as the messengers from the gods come to petition for peace. It’s a sombreroed Emiliano Zapata, camel trenchcoated John Lennon, and a hunched Mother Teresa. Plus, it’s the three Marx Brothers, Groucho Zapata, Chico Lennon, and Harpo Mother T, who communicates solely by bulb horn. Chico doesn’t have a piano solo, but we get Harpo shaking hands with his knee in a slick piece of kinetic artistry. The Marx Brothers tribute doesn’t miss a beat and is the strongest argument for recording live theatre.
Director Richard Montoya for Culture Clash Collective peoples his Chorus with musicians, singers and dancers, and a white baby grand piano, played by composer Michael Roth. Eclecticism is its own reward must be Roth’s credo. Roth covers a gamut from Broadway to wild dances when everyone save the piano weaves across the multi-level stage. Jennifer Sanchez deserves her credit as Movement Consultant. Watching her cast members stay in bird character through their every movement on stage added a delicious texture to the action. Every movement was consequential. Brava!
Much as it would be fun to see the performance in the open air amphitheater, the auditorium at the Getty Center is ideal for this Culture Clash performance. With the performing space only a few inches from the audience, two steps transfers the action quickly from the stage to the aisle for some one-on-one interaction, then a pursuit across the middle row where Montoya pauses to get hugs and kisses from delighted ticket holders.
The Birds is presented as an elaborate reader’s theatre. The players stand with one hand engaged in the scene, the other holding the script. Actors read their lines from the printed script and “walk” their way through the scene. They are beautifully mic’d so words reach the audience clearly. Dakin Matthews consumes every scene written for him. Saturday afternoon people in the audience booed the actor on his first curtain call. The second bow, Montoya reminded gente Matthews plays the role, and the full house cheered.
Culture Clash presented The Birds in conjunction with the Getty Villa and its Villa Theater Lab program. Laurel Kishi and Ralph Flores and the Villa Theater Lab Staff are doing a great service for Los Angeles theater goers, putting a staged reading like this “on the road” but not so far that its record-speed ticket giveaway might not catch attention further east. Perhaps audiences will one day soon see Culture Clash’s The Birds on the Mark Taper Main Stage?
There's the Tuesday column on Wednesday. See you next Tuesday, the 27th of March, the eve of April showers.