Onassis’ BIRDS Festival Taking Wing Across New York City till July 8th, 2018

Φωτογραφία Onassis Culture Center New York

By Vicki James Yiannias
Greek News

A modern-day wonder, the Birds, Athens-born director Nikos Karathanos’ re-staging of Aristophanes’ ancient comedy, Birds, performed in the amphitheater-like space at St. Ann’s Warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront from May 2-13 was the foundation piece of BIRDS: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes, April 22-July 8.  In this contemporary adaptation of Birds, humans play birds (brilliantly), which in turn are stand-ins for humans behaving like animals.

Although not usually applied to visual or audial experience, the word “delicious” describes this technically and artistically superb production. For this viewer, the dazzling two-hour production about birds, gods, and human foibles was over too soon.With its sold-out performances in New York, The Birds brought attention to a stricken country.  For Greece, perhaps the most important message of The Birds, Karathanos’ gorgeous play, still fundamental, diachronic, relevant,was a Greek play.  Seen in the US by thousands.

Presented by St. Anne’s Warehouse and the Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens, and produced by the Onassis Cultural Center New York, the BIRDS festival, which began on April 22, continues to “Take Wing”, with citywide theater, visual art, music, museum and spoken word events at prominent cultural venues spanning New York City through July 8.  These events explore themes in and around Aristophanes’ Birds and how birds in general have influenced artists over thousands of years.

In 414 BC, Birds, the longest of Aristophanes’ eleven surviving plays, won second prize in The Great (or City) Dionysia, the festival dedicated to the god Dionysus, (one of many prizes won at for his plays at The Great Dionysia).  Throughout the entire performance of the Birds, which takes place on and in front of “cloudcuckooland”, an ingeniously simple set suggesting a dense forest in which live countless colorful birds, Utopia being a couple of fluffy clouds above, I wondered about the mood of Birds in the Great Dionysia.Complaining about life in Athens, “where people do nothing all day but argue over laws”, two middle-aged Athenians, Peisthetaeros and Euelpides (played by Karathanos), stumble across a hillside wilderness guided by a pet crow and a pet jackdaw as they look for Tereus, a king who was once metamorphosed into a Hoopoe, in the hopes he might help them find a better life somewhere else.  On discovering the presence of men, the newly-arrived birds fly into a fit of alarm and outrage, for mankind has long been their enemy.  A skirmish follows.

Expect wit, spectacular dancing, wordplays, raucous humor, deep sentiments and profound life-truths, pop music, some nudity, outrageous and beautiful costumes, torn fishnet stockings on Tereus, a deeply reflective Chorus with music by Angelos Triantafillou, silly birds, congenial gods and heroes (Hi! I’m Herakles”), and much, much more.

With its indirect references to Athenian political and social life, Birds, which has been said to be a perfectly realized fantasy remarkable for its mimicry of birds and the gaiety of its songs, seemed astoundingly relevant to contemporary issues.  However, Young Richard Kim, academic consultant for Birds: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes, writes in the festival catalogue that thematically, one might see “critiques of democracy, bureaucracy and corruption, among other things…Then again, perhaps we ought also to ask if the play needs to be understood at all as some form of political allegory.  Another perspective simply suggests that Birds was meant to be escapism, pure and simple.”

But Karathanos sees his production as being about the social ills of contemporary Greece, writing in the programme that “Aristophanes’ heroes traveled skywards.  All these years that have gone by, people never have ceased leaving, running, going places.  We come to you from the same city as the heroes of Aristophanes; we, like they, are also tired and exasperated with life there.  We, like they, are, always in search of our very own, and perhaps collective, ‘cloudcuckooland’.  We want to speak to you of the people who stand on one leg all the time, who feel foreign and alien in the very midst of our own city, among people who fear their difference.  We want to speak for those who’ve been forced, through pain and ill treatment, to live on borders and grow wings every day that passes, so they can cross the borders and jump the wall, however ‘beautiful’ that wall may be.”

“Nature of Justice: On the Birds, a contemporary art exhibition of the work of Machine Dazzle, Louise Lawler. Sofia Stevi, and Theo Triantafyllidis in the lobby of St. Anne’s Warehouse, commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center New York, accompanied Karanthos’ The Birds,

broadening the public and cultural dialogue initiated by the production.  Louise Lawler’s “Birdcalls”, an audio work of squawking and crying out the names of prominent white male artists, was meant to draw attention to “the gender imbalance that was, and still is, rampant and unjust”.  “Prometheus”, a projected live-simulation video of a bird in aggressive pursuit of a pretzel by emerging Greek artist, Theo Triantafyllidis, was a mesmerizing digital representation (based on the computer’s archiving algorithm) of the never-ending cycle of greed and self-serving conduct.  “Anti-gravity fellas” a large-scale painting by Greek artist Sofia Stevi resembles a protest banner with indecipherable calligraphic text and abstracted figures.

“Migration”, an artwork suspended from the ceiling is inspired by the reverie of Aristophanes’ Birds.

The Onassis Cultural Center New York’s annual festival of arts and ideas, an innovation inaugurated in 2015, explores the contemporary relevance of the classical tradition through adventurous programs and newly-commissioned artworks.  These cultural initiatives foster important collaborations between Greek and American artists. Music, dance, talks, film, theater and more occur over the course of days for audiences of all ages.  Important characters from Greek myth, and the messages they communicate through time, lay the foundation for festival themes.

The first festival, in 2015, “Narcissus Now”, inaugurated the renovated Onassis Cultural Center New York with a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Narcissus myth through choreography, music, performance, fashion, culinary arts, film, architecture, visual arts, and literature.  It also examined the contemporary imprint of Narcissus on technology, psychology, philosophy, and science.  The second Onassis Festival of Arts and Ideas, in 2016, “Antigone Now”, drawn from Sophocles’ “Antigone”, explored contemporary interpretations of the story of Antigone through visual and performing arts, humanities, family activities, and digital media.  Antigone does not aspire to be a rebel or a hero, but becomes a threat to the state through her actions, whose enduring significance is far-reaching and universal.

Director/Actor/Writer Nikos Karathanos graduated from the drama school of the National Theatre of Greece.  He has played the lead role in many performances from the classical and contemporary repertory and has taken part in tours in Greece all over the world.

The outstanding cast and crew of The Birds: Amalia Bennett, Kostas Eliopoulos, Konstantinos Bibis, Maria Diakopanagiotou, Vasiliki Driva, Haris Frangoulis, Galini Hatzipaschali, Nikos Karanthos, Emily Kollandri, Ektor Litsos, Christos Coulis, Grigoria Metheniti, Folvos Rimenas, Michalis Sarantis, Aris Servetalis, Giannis Sevdikalis, Elana Topalidou, Marisha Triantafyllidou, and Aggelos Triantafillou.

Giannis Asteris, Translation of the Birds into Modern Greek and Adaptation; Simos Sarketzis, Lighting design; Amalia Bennett, Movement; Orfeas Apergis, subtitle translation.

Live Musicians: Sofia Efkleidou, Michalis Katachanas, Dimitris Klonis, Vasilis Panagiotopoulos, Dimitris Tingas.

Produced by Onassis Cultural Center New York.

Festival Co-Presenters:American Museum of Natural History

Brooklyn Museum


New-York Historical Society

New York Public Library

St. Ashowing Greece’s immense ancient and modern talent and influence, nn’s Warehouse

Stella Adler Studio of Acting

Festival Curator, Violaine Huisman; Associate Curator of Visual Arts, Mari Spirito, Curatorial Assistant, Tamar MacKay

Go to: www.onassisusa.org for information on the many events of BIRDS: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes

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