The Latino comedy trio Culture Clash proves right at home with the conventions of Greek comedy in their suitably irreverent new take on Aristophanes' "The Birds," written in collaboration with South Coast Rep's literary manager John Glore and directed with agility and invention by Mark Rucker. A visual delight, the show hews loyally to the style, structure and spirit of the original, even as it succeeds on its own terms as a freewheeling riff on the follies of SoCal culture, circa this minute.
The Latino comedy trio Culture Clash proves right at home with the conventions of Greek comedy in their suitably irreverent new take on Aristophanes’ “The Birds,” written in collaboration with South Coast Rep’s literary manager John Glore and directed with agility and invention by Mark Rucker. A visual delight, the show hews loyally to the style, structure and spirit of the original, even as it succeeds on its own terms as a freewheeling riff on the follies of SoCal culture, circa this minute.Purists may protest, but a free hand in adapting Aristophanes is not only defensible but necessary, since his comedies rely heavily on untranslatable puns and a barrage of allusions to figures who are meaningless to modern audiences — and indeed remain obscure even to modern scholars. In this version, Aristophanes’ two guys in search of an avian utopia are the Latino Gato (Richard Montoya) and the black Foxx (smoothly played by Victor Mack), who are so fed up with life on the underside of American culture that they’re looking to deport themselves. In a funny all-purpose rant against the commodities they’re looking to escape, Gato lists a litany of urban ills: “Cops, Crips, Bloods, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, Martha Stewart …” They call on the bird-man Hoopoe (Herbert Siguenza), and Foxx proposes the creation of a new kingdom between Heaven and Earth, to be ruled by birds. While the Hoopoe’s wife Prokne (Susan Zelinsky) croons a tune, a pile of white balloons is unloosed from a net above the square stage. They fill the floor, and we are charmingly transported to Cloudcuckooland in a striking, simple coup de theatre courtesy of designer Christopher Barreca. Equally striking but far less simple are the ingenious forms of plumage costume designer Shigeru Yaji has concocted for the play’s bird chorus. He’s gone batty in Bed, Bath & Beyond, among other urban treasure troves, and uses everything from plush toilet seat covers and plastic knives to soap brushes, neckties and deflated rubber balloons to feather the cast. His wittiest piece of ingenuity is Foxx’s first set of wings, sculpted with credit cards. The show’s highlight is its dizzying middle section, directed with lightning speed by Rucker, in which the nascent kingdom is beset with visitors from Earth: a nasal-voiced tax collector wondering if Foxx is attempting to found a “tax-free religious organization”; a real estate saleswoman ready to subdivide the new world into oblivion, creating “Rancho Cloudcuckooland Hills Estates Heights”; a pair of antic Indians looking for a video store that carries “Jerry Maguire.” All are played with broad comic panache by the Culture Clash trio (Montoya, Siguenza and Ric Salinas), and the writing here is at its slyest and sharpest. The scattershot, episodic nature of the show is dictated by the stylistic conventions of Old Comedy, but it still poses problems for audiences more attuned to narrative flow and pointed dramatic construction. After an hour or so, the puns, wisecracks and allusions, which all remain at a fairly low, knee-slapper level, grow a little tiring, even if the anarchic, ambling structure somehow seems right for today’s channel-surfing culture. Michael Roth’s music, which draws on everything from R&B to the Velvet Underground, is pleasant enough, but the song lyrics are largely banal; less would be more here. And ingenious as the collaborators are at finding present-day equivalents for Aristophanes’ targets, we begin to feel that they’re mocking everything but the kitchen sink: the satire never takes on a sufficiently specific focus. In the original, it was the bureaucracy-laden and litigation-happy Athenian society; here it seems to be every possible annoyance of modern culture, from trash TV to gang warfare, including such of-the-moment topics as the dangers of skiing and the curious careers of White House interns. (Refreshingly, even Princess Diana and Mother Teresa are not spared.) You might expect Culture Clash to focus on the sufferings of the immigrant underclass at the hands of bureaucrats and politicians rather more than they do here; a heavy-handed final coda involving an act of violence seems an attempt to close on a more pointed note, but it’s too little too late. It drags down this feather-weight concoction to the level of agitprop theater, as Gato pulls a gun on the new deity Foxx, accusing him of “selling out.” But selling out what? No noble ideals have been established. Ultimately the appeal of the show to some degree depends on one’s taste for low comedy — whether it’s by Aristophanes or courtesy of “South Park” — but it’s really the accomplishment one carries away. Culture Clash & Co. have managed to make one of the theater’s more remote forms feel fresh and audacious again, almost as if it were born yesterday.