THE BIRDS by Aristophanes; adapted by Walter Kerr; music and additional lyrics by Alex Rybeck and Christopher W. Patton; directed by Jeffrey B. Davis; choreography by Jill Falci; scenery by Douglas A. Cumming; lighting by Daniel M. Wagner; costumes by Leslie-Marie Cocuzzo; properties by Kathleen Wolfrey; fight scenes by Thomas Schall.
With David DiGlannantonio, Mark Jaster, Eric Rachils, christopher King, Linda Medina, Nan Bavis, Thomas Schall, Richard Averbuck and Kathrya Silvia.
At round House Theatre, Silver Spring, Md., through Avg. 2.
Nearly 2,400 years after his death, Aristophanes is one of those great playwrights whose works are rarely seen and even more rarely enjoyed. How does such a thing happen? Walter Kerr, who adapted the version of "The Birds" that opened Tuesday at the Round House Theatre, pins the blame on the abundance of contemporary references in Aristophanes' work. Much of the now-mystifying detail about Athenian politics and personalities can be stripped away, says Kerr, but sometimes not much play remains. And since these works have been copied and pillaged by comic playwrights down through the centuries, bare-bones versions have a way of seeming very, very familiar.
In "The Birds," two war-weary Athenians join forces with the bird community to establish a new kingdom called Cloud Cuckooland. Imposing a complete trade and travel embargo both on earth below and heaven above, the birds succeed in bringing men and gods to their knees.
Aristophanes wrote the play at a tense moment in Athens' struggle with Sparta, when less ethereal subject matter was getting risky. But just the same, he managed to take some large comic swipes at Athenian greed and corruption, especially through a series of sycophants and peddlers who try to horn in on Cloud Cuckooland's success.
As a utopian fantsy, "The Birds" had less contemporary detail than some of the other plays, and Kerr was able to give Aristophanes' jokes a modern flavor without imposing any grating modernisms. Building on that approach, Round House artistic director Jeffrey B. Davis has added music, new lyrics and diverting props and costumes, and he has encouraged his actors to play their characters to the comic hilt -- but always with a regard for the basic story and coloring of the original play.
That's the difference between this production and "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Ford's Theatre: Here, the songs, visual gags and comic shticks are reasonable modern analogues to devices in Aristophanes; whereas "Joseph's" gimmicks add up to an irrelevant hype for the story and characters from the Old Testament.
At the Round House, the two human heroes are extravagantly played by David DiGiannantonio and Mark Jaster, the one as ever-ebullient as the other is ever-gloomy. From time to time, Jaster wears an up side-down kettle for a hat, which DiGiannantonio occasionally strikes, drum-fashion, with a large soup ladel. So stand warned: That's the sort of production this is. Davis and his players have resisted the temptations of camp, but they have also resisted the allure of subtlety or startling originality.
Among the feathered portion of the cast, Kathryn Silvia, Eric Rachlis and Christopher King are standouts, and the whole ensemble gets considerable comic assistance from Leslie-Marie Cocuzzo's enterprising birdsuits, Jill Falci's choreography and the crisp, catchy music (and extra lyrics) by Alex Rybeck and Christopher W. Patton.
In short, it would be a mistake to head for the Round House expecting the laugh riot of the century, or even the laugh riot of the week. But the company has fun with this "Birds," and a member of the audience could easily do the same.