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Dramashop's wicked The Birds is nearly flawless

THE BIRDS

Written by Aristophanes.

Translation by William Arrowsmith.

Directed by Michael Ouellette.

Presented by MIT Dramashop.

Starring Daniel Frank Gochberg '91.

Kresge Little Theatre, Feb. 14-16, 8 pm.

By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a wily, expatriate Athenian decides to go live with the birds among the clouds? You get Aristophanes' wickedly funny The Birds, a comedy that was awarded second prize at its premiere in Dionysia in 414 B.C.

This is a far-from-ordinary production of a classical Greek comedy: there's William Arrowsmith's witty translation in modern American English; a cleverly-designed set consisting of the tops of Boston buildings; and one hilarious cross-casting. And in typical Dramashop style, the production is nearly flawless.

The play's premise, while not completely farcical, is certainly ridiculous: Pisthetairos (Daniel Frank Gochberg '91) and his friend Euelpides (Michael Pieck '92) become fed up with the activities of the "legal locusts" in Athens. Hearing of a man (Bob Amini '92) who, sharing their sentiment, moved to the avian kingdom long ago and was transformed into a hoopoe, Pisthetairos and Euelpides go in search of the realm of the birds. Pisthetairos -- certainly as great a talker as all those lawyers he so despises -- presents the birds with an offer they can't refuse. Since birds live in the area between heaven and earth, why should they not rule the sky? And since birds are older than the earth, why should people worship the Olympian gods and not the birds? Naturally, the birds are enthusiastic about Pisthetairos' plan, and together they create the kingdom of Cloudcuckooland, where birds rule and gods must pay tribute to pass through its borders.

Amini takes a great turn as the hoopoe, here represented as a Southern patriarch confined to a wheelchair. Though his role is small compared to that of Pisthetairos or the birds, he plays it with great gusto, especially in the scene when he summons the birds with wild, screeching calls.

Pieck and Gochberg are wonderful in their parts, too. Leslie Coccuzzo-Held's inspired costuming treats Euelpides and Pisthetairos as modern men: Gochberg wears a blue windbreaker, jeans, and an untucked, stained Denver Broncos T-shirt. Pieck is a Saturday Night Fever reject, clad in gray polyester from head to toe, his shirt wide open to expose a hairy chest and several gold chains. His Euelpides is suitably obnoxious, and I was almost disappointed when his character was disposed of not long into the play -- his disruptive shenanigans would have been even funnier had they taken place in the birds' paradise.

Gochberg, however, is by far the star of the show. His Pisthetairos is by turns brash, lustful and cunning, taking great relish in his blasphemous rejection of the gods' authority. As a man-bird, he is the perfect choice to head up Cloudcuckooland. He is sly enough to take care of any interlopers, be they mortal or divine.

The set, designed by Alyssa Parker '91 and William Fregosi, shows an innovative approach to the problem of representing a literal castle in the sky. The rooftops of famous Boston landmarks -- the modernist, functional Prudential Center tower, the gentle half-moon curves of 500 Boylston St. -- are enveloped by clouds of subliming dry ice. When Cloudcuckooland is dedicated, a temple of the birds descends to the stage. Painted gold, with brass columns and tall malachite bases, the temple is adorned with logos from "avian" corporations: Birdseye frozen foods, Dove soap, the NBC peacock.

In keeping with the urban setting, director Michael Ouellette conceived his chorus of birds as the homeless, society's rejects. When Amini lets loose his birdcalls, the chorus staggers in, surly, dressed in old trenchcoats, tattered scarves and mismatched clothing. Many members of the chorus serve double duty: Michelle P. Perry '91 performs a jet'e or two as Iris, messenger of the gods; Bruce Wallace C is a pantheistic priest; Monica Gomi '94 stutters shyly as a messenger with a crush on Pisthetairos.

As I said before, Dramashop's production is virtually flawless. The only rough edges show up when the chorus speaks as one. Their voices become muddled, and often one actor is speaking at a different pace from the others. This drawback is partially due to the difficulty of getting eight people to speak coherently, in unison. As drawbacks go, though, it's relatively minor, and in no way should keep you from attending the play. To miss The Birds would be to miss a comic fantasy of grand proportions.