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David Gordon

'Aristophanes in Birdonia'

by Juliet Neidish

January 14, 2006 -- Danspace, New York City

As a fan of David Gordon’s previous theater/dance work “The Chairs” (his version of Ionesco’s 1950s play), I was happy to be seated at Danspace in New York City awaiting his new production, “Aristophanes in Birdonia,” inspired by Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play, “The Birds.”  Arriving early afforded me the chance to enjoy the set, which was a kind of site specific, sculptural environment in its own right.  Metal folding chairs were placed either standing or lying on their sides around the periphery of the space, and small flat packages dotting the floor alluded to a circular pathway.  Most striking were the two stacks of metal chairs piled up every which way, reaching toward the ceiling, with a theater doorframe in between. 

A wonderfully uplifting and nostalgic medley of musical selections all referring to names of birds played as the audience was being seated.  Dispersed in between some of the song selections were sound-bites of recognizable voices from the U.S. administration.  These clips did not go unnoticed.  During a bit of Bush speak, a woman blurted out, “Do we have to listen to this?”  Chuckles followed.  This audience was ripe for political satire, and the promise of it seemed soon to come. 

Aristophanes’ play was a political satire as well as a comedic play on words and literary references.  Shortly into Gordon’s production it seemed that he would not approach his version from similar fronts but would transport the piece to a more contemporary setting.  The incredible, multi-talented Valda Setterfield was cast as Aristophanes.  She explained that a problem-ridden America was now renamed Hysterica and that two Hystericans named Stan and Ollie, distressed with the current state of their country, were to convince the bird species to allow them to design a new land in the skies which the birds would rule and to which Stan and Ollie could escape.  This narrative parallels Aristophanes’ basic story line.  All the performers used voice and movement.  The characters Stan, Ollie and Queen of the Birds, played respectively by Derek Lucci, Ken Marks, and Norma Fire, are all trained actors. The Bird Chorus, comprised of Karen Graham, Jonah Bokaer, Sam Johnson, and Kevin Williamson, were the designated dancers. 

Setterfield took us through an entertaining and clever tale as we watched Stan and Ollie win their plea and build their utopia.  Gordon succeeded in weaving in all manner of bird references as well as Greek double entendres throughout the piece.  He is skilled at keeping the stage moving and energized. The cast was top notch. It is always a gift to bear witness to the theatrical mastery and charm of Setterfield, whose role included ancient playwright, storyteller, augur, alter ego of the director, dancer and comedienne.  Unfortunately, despite the talented performers and their fine vaudevillian shtick, the piece itself did not seem to have a body.  It had an engaging build-up and a sudden, hasty denouement, ending with a recreation of the dances that had been threaded throughout the 60-minute piece.

Gordon diverged from Aristophanes’ ending and had Stan and Ollie discover that their new home had accrued all the negatives of their native one.  Homesick, they chose to leave Birdonia and return to Hysterica.  This ending seemed completely premature.  When all was said and done, there was no political satire to speak of.  Gordon missed his chance, or chose to recede from actually confronting the political issues to which he only alluded.  It was a shame because the piece was all set up to deliver, and the audience was all ready to receive. 

Another problem of the piece is a potential problem for this type of hybrid genre.  As I have noted, the theatrical basis or body of Gordon’s text was lacking, yet his dance aspect was not strong enough to make up for that weakness.   The choreography, though simplistic (diagonal chorus line of arabesques, and a big game of musical chairs), served to keep the stage alive.  However, it was ornamental rather than dramatic, which eventually rendered the dancing flat and seemingly repetitious.  Had the dancers been directed to be more individual, or actorly, they could have engaged more in the action of the play and perhaps added to what was missing textually.  The audience could have had a field day watching dancers being all manner of bird, or for that matter, bird-like political figures, reminiscent of contemporary political figures.  The possibilities are endless but they remained largely unrealized.  What was realized was an attractive frame for them.  I hope Gordon continues to work on calibrating the different disciplines at work in this piece so as to vivify his individualistic concept of performance.

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