David Gordon and the avian liberal elite remain grounded
“Dancing Henry V,” David Gordon’s first foray into literary adaptation, was a wonderful, lyrical, and poignant re-imagining of the classic work, made timely with only minimal nudging. Performed to recorded texts, it was securely and successfully situated in the realm of dance, a gem, really, of narrative and impressionist articulations of the ideas and issues of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
“Aristophanes in Birdonia,” which comes after Gordon’s subsequent foray into theater, seems to suffer from both its predecessors. For one thing, “Birdonia” is primarily theater, as evidenced by the appearance of several asterisked actors. And while there is a score of bird-related songs throughout the piece, spoken text is primary. Furthermore, since the original play —a buffoonery—was grounded in no particular political or social intention, the attempt to connect the narrative to our current situation comes across like a cartoon hammer over the head—with ensuing ring of tweeting birds.
Gordon’s wife and longtime collaborator Valda Setterfield, who plays the Greek author, is luminous, as always. She keeps the thing afloat, and even manages a few laughs from the abundant—and hackneyed—bird and Greek word jokes and references stuffed into the script. Naturally, the parabasis, the device in Greek comedy that allows the playwright to voice his opinion directly, is well suited to Gordon, who is never on stage but always speaking.
At the top, Setterfield disclaims that the director has instructed her to keep dancing throughout the show, since this thing is happening in a dance space, and not a theater space. She does a quick shuffle-skiddo-hop in her silver Birkenstocks, purple toga, and gray shaggy wig. Here was a hint of possibility, a flash of Groucho Marx in Fredonia from “Duck Soup,” but the comic potential gave way to a preachy evening.
Stan (Derek Lucci) and Ollie (Ken Marks), who seem more like inveigling actors than endearing tramps, decide to leave The United States of Hysterica and build a utopia. They meet Hoopoe the Epops, Queen of the Birds (Norma Fire), and together with the birds they build a city, which they name Birdonia after trying many, many other names. They build a wall. At one point, Aristophanes leads the group in a collegiate musical number, about the need for an absolute separation of church and state. Stan and Ollie leave Birdonia, and decide to return to Hysterica, because, as this female Aristophanes explains, while the director “avows his pessimism and cynicism, he wants to leave you with hope.”
Much of the movement sequences also feel derivative of “Dancing Henry V,” including a duet with Hoopoe, and a couple of musical chair permutations. The ever-lovely Karen Graham as Ver-wrennica, and the ornamental bird chorus—Jonah Bokaer, Sam Johnson, and Kevin Williamson—infuse the best dance into the work in repeating phrases with their long limbs adorned by tattered plaids evoking scrappy feathers; trucker caps serve as ersatz beaks.
During molting sequences, the bird quartet flits and turns, circle their arms in canon, stop, and tear strips of cloth in dusty codas. They ponché into huddles, circle in formation, and even do a kind of minuet. In these group sequences, where almost all of the dancing takes place, the material is fine. Bokaer, however, makes it remarkable. He dances as if it were Balanchine or Merce—his commitment knows no prejudice.