Princeton’s Lewis Center to present play ‘The Birds ‘

The Lewis Center for the Arts will present The Birds, a new adaptation of the ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes, directed by Tim Vasen, Acting Director of the Program in Theater.  The new script and new music were created by seniors Sea Bass Franco and Clayton Raithel.  Performances will be held on May 31, June 1 and 2 at 8:00 p.m. in the Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio at 185 Nassau St.

The plot of The Birds recounts the story of Pisthetaerus, an Athenian, who persuades the world’s birds to create a new city in the sky, thereby gaining control over all communications between men and the gods.  Pisthetaerus is miraculously transformed into a bird-like figure and, with the help of his friends, the birds, and with advice from Prometheus, he soon replaces Zeus as the pre-eminent power in the cosmos.

One of Aristophanes’ 11 surviving plays, The Birds was first performed in 414 BCE at the City Dionysia festival where it won second prize.  It has been acclaimed by modern critics as a perfectly realized fantasy remarkable for its mimicry of birds and for the charm of its songs. Unlike the playwright’s other works, such as the anti-military Lysistrata, critics disagree on whether The Birds carries a political message.  Widely noted as pure extravaganza, a graceful, whimsical theme chosen expressly for the sake of the opportunities it afforded of bright, amusing dialogue, pleasing lyrical interludes, and displays of brilliant stage effects and elaborate costumes, some scholars point out the historical context of Athens’ ill-fated Sicilian Expedition and the Mutilation of the Hermae as backdrop for the play.

The Sicilian Expedition was an ambitious Greek military campaign that had greatly increased Athenian commitment to the war effort, in progress at the time the play premiered.  Some critics see the play as a prophecy of the campaign’s failure and the political downfall of its leader, Alcibiades.  At the same time public conscience was shocked and perturbed by the mysterious mutilation of the Hermae.  The Hermae were busts of Hermes, messenger of the gods and protector of travelers.  As such, busts atop pillars sat at every cross street in Athens.  The pillars included a prominent phallus, a symbol of good fortune.  One night in 415 BCE all the Hermae were vandalized throughout the city, prompting a wide investigation and fear among the superstitious citizenry that this act of sabotage would anger the gods.  Alcibiades, who was about to set sail for Sicily, was among those accused of leading the conspiratorial destruction.

“The Birds is not unlike a mass-appeal, hit movie today,” notes Vasen.  “You’ve got a sensational spectacle of a story, reference throughout of contemporary celebrities, with perhaps a political message that relates to the current events of the day.  It is amazing that after 2,500 years, what people crave as entertainment has not changed all that much.”

Seniors Franco and Raithel collaborated on the new adaptation’s script and composed new music for the production.  Both are completing a certificate in the Program in Theater and have previously received student awards from the Lewis Center for outstanding work. Franco is majoring in Molecular Biology and Raithel in Religious Studies.  This project represents both students’ senior thesis project in theater.  Earlier this year Raithel composed original music for the Theater Program’s fall show, Fuente Ovejuna: A Disloyal Adaptation.

The Birds closes a varied season for the Theater Program, which also included two Russian works previously banned by the Soviet regime; a new adaptation of a German classic, Woyzeck; a reimagining of the musical Pippin; a play recounting the true tale of the lynching of a murderous circus elephant; and the new play Roll!, which premiered in April and is moving next to the ANT Fest at Ars Nova in New York in June.

Tickets for The Birds are $12 general admission and $10 for students and seniors and may be reserved through Princeton University Ticket Office by calling 609.258.9220 or on-line at princeton.edu/utickets/,  and will be available at each performance.

The Lewis Center’s Program in Theater annually presents a major, professionally produced play in the fall, as well as a number of student senior thesis productions throughout the year.  To learn more about this event, the Program in Theater, and other activities presented at the Lewis Center visit princeton.edu/arts.