When writing his version of “The Birds,” Len Jenkin went the way of Shakespeare — by pilfering the ancient Greeks for inspiration and plot.
Indeed, the remaking of classics has become trendy lately, and audiences laud gritty, modern versions of Oedipus and AIDS-ridden adaptations of La Boheme. And oftentimes it is for good reason. In this case, it is not.
Salvaged by the fabulous acting of the graduating class of the School of Drama, Jenkin’s redrafting of Aristophanes’ 2,500-year-old play of the same name is certainly creative. “The Birds” has moments that are exceedingly endearing, like a scene with a puppet mob boss, but mostly it has moments that are exceedingly tiresome and musical numbers that are exceedingly awkward.
This is the production the cast of “Saved by the Bell” would have killed for if they had come to Yale and performed at the Rep. It has a nerd, a bully, a beauty queen and enough scheming to keep Zach Morris busy for weeks.
If it sounds like Jenkin’s script and cast of characters is formulaic, that’s because it is. In fact, in keeping with the tendency towards taking ancient characters and portraying them, for example, as Vegas lounge comedians in cheap suits or mobsters with shrunken limbs, Jenkin compiles an extensive list of personalities. At first it is clever and amusing, just like when Romeo and Juliet lived in Los Angeles, but as the guest list of walk-ons grows to include pedophilic evangelists, real-estate agents and egomaniacal dot-commers, it just gets tiresome.
The play, in its skeletal form, is about the pathetic lounge comedian Venable Smoke, played by Rio Puertollano DRA ’01, and the nervous talent agent Arnold Sand, played by Remy Auberjonois DRA ’01. Auberjonois has stolen Rick Moranis’ ideal role, and he plays it superbly — a helpless nerd thrown out of Vegas because he and his star performer, Puertollano, can’t pay their gambling debts.
If Jenkin is remembered favorably for this production, it will be because of the clever scene during which the luckless pair are kicked out of town by Buddy Baraccas (Patrick Huey DRA ’01), who provides the head to a short-limbed puppet. The puppet is controlled from underneath the desk and by Baraccas’ two assistants, Ms. Heckyl (Kate Nowlin DRA ’01), and Ms. Jeckyl (Adriana Gaviria DRA ’01), clad totally in leather that could have come from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and are armed like the Terminator.
At some point during their wanderings through the desert, the two run into a makeshift birdseller, at which point, down on their luck, they decide that rather than making a go of it in the real world, they’re going to join the birds. Carried to the sky by the fabulously costumed and very talented Rudolph Dodo (Mark Mattek DRA ’01), they join the birds and name the sky Cloud Cuckooland, build a wall separating humans from the gods, and then fight off the wrath of Poseidon with the occasional utterly confusing soap opera interlude.
If the play weren’t already crowded and cumbersome, perhaps musical numbers would be novel and exciting. Instead, they are largely haphazard, mostly short, unmotivated and irrelevant. And through it all the audience learns a bittersweet lesson: even the most brilliant actors, ones capable of making this chaos seem coherent — and even pleasant to watch for two hours — are not necessarily good singers.
There are two particular elements of this performance that bear mention and extended applause. The first is the costumes. Regardless of what costume designer Katherine Hampton may have done in the past, she has without a doubt outdone herself with this endeavor. The costumes are gorgeous, loud, feathered and colorful, just like the play, with the only difference being that they are neatly stitched together and do not occasionally and without warning break into song.
The second is Queen Popsy, played by Kathryn Hahn DRA ’01, who delivers a monologue about a dream sequence that is unmatched and magnificent. Her performance speaks very well of the direction of Christopher Bayes. It is one of the moments in which Jenkin should take pride because it is a great monologue and it is delivered with all the style and grace of a former Vegas showgirl and current honorary bird-queen.
Overall, “The Birds” is a fun show to watch because of the soaring abilities of its actors and because there is a bit of flying, which is always a joy. Aristophanes’ age old themes of leadership and utopia are still there to be gleaned, so Jenkin does do some things right. A show at the Rep is almost always a guarantee for an inspired evening, though, even if it turns out to be a bit flighty.
Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
Yale Repertory Theater
Tickets: $28-$36, discounts available for students, senior citizens and groups. Info.: (203) 432-1234, www.yalerep.org.