published 3.27.2018

Birds: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes Opens April 22, 2018

The Onassis Cultural Center New York presents Birds: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes, comprising a rich array of events that consider the enduring—and, currently, pressing—central themes of Aristophanes’ ancient satire, The Birds, April 22 –July 8, 2018. The festival centers on the American premiere of Nikos Karathanos’ uproarious and poetic adaptation of the original Aristophanes play, presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse and Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens. Karathanos’ production contemporizes The Birds, in which humans seek out the avian creatures to build a new society in the sky, driven by a desire for inclusion and liberation from stagnant mores. The production travels, with its company of 19 actors and its singular utopian vision, to an increasingly splintered America for 12 performances at St. Ann’s Warehouse, May 2-13. 

The festival, continuing the exploration of the work across artistic disciplines, includes programs co-produced by St. Ann’s Warehouse, American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, Metrograph, New-York Historical Society, The New York Public Library, and Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

The Birds was first produced as part of the Dionysia festival in 414 BC, at the heart of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the nearly-three-decade bloodbath that left Athens depleted. Athens had been a nexus of lofty ideals: the world’s first known democratic society, teeming with intellectual and artistic excellence. But Aristophanes’ The Birds, much like Karathanos’ adaptation, was borne of turmoil and transition—a utopian escapist fantasy replete with raucous humor, dance and music.

Questions such as what wrongdoing is punished, whose corruption is liable to expulsion, who rules and why, are central to The Birds, and are prescient in the context of mass incarceration in the contemporary United States. At The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on May 1, Rachel Kushner, acclaimed bestselling author of The Flamethrowers, will join screenwriter Paul Schrader in a LIVE from the NYPL event. They will discuss how Kushner’s book The Mars Room (publication date April 15, 2018) examines the American prison system and the ethics of punishment. 

The connection between questions The Birds provokes—as its characters try to make a new society but risk emulating unjust structures they are attempting to undo—and mass incarceration will be explored further with Stella Adler Studio of Acting’s The Birds in Prison, at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. The company will bring members of The Birds cast to perform songs from the play as part of the studio’s ongoing program providing the empowering study of theater to inmates (May 7; not open to the public or press).

For thousands of years a basic political endgame has been to avoid tyranny—allegorized beautifully in Aristophanes’ The Birds—yet we continue to bear witness to repeated attacks on democracy. The Brooklyn Museum will present artist David Levine’s conceptual art project, Some of the People, All of the Time—a satirical performance work that addresses issues of human identity, agency, and suspicion through the figure of the actor. Reciting a new dramatic text, a rotating cast of “fake persons” prompts the disturbing realization of the bad-faith forms of trickery that have discredited the will of the people through the ages—May 24-July 8. 

Prior to opening, the Museum will host a panel discussion on Aristophanes and Political Satire, moderated by Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri and featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park, The Low Road), acclaimed actor Denis O’Hare (An Iliad, American Horror Story, True Blood), Brooklyn Museum Deputy Director and Chief Curator Jennifer Y. Chi, and The New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly, on April 25; on May 23 Levine will give an opening lecture on the history and theory of the fake crowd. 

World-renowned theater designer, director, and puppet-maker Julian Crouch teams up with Saskia Lane of The Lascivious Biddies to present the delicately beautiful puppet theater piece Birdheart, their first project as duo puppeteers and performers, at the Brooklyn Museum, on May 19. On June 16, the Cool Culture Family Festival will see the Brooklyn Museum becoming a lively interactive space—with the added excitement of a concert from Shine & the Moonbeams—devoted to free expression for children and their families.

As part of the festival, Metrograph will present four films in dialogue with Aristophanes’ work (May 18-20). One is a film that shares the play’s title if certainly not its utopic plot: in terms of its metaphorical usage of birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is antithetical to Aristophanes’ play, evoking violence and horror in its disturbing vision of the flock. The cinema will screen Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai—which reveals a spiritual bond to birds in its story of an American hit man/sort-of-Samurai who communicates by carrier pigeon. Metrograph’s programming will also feature Paul Grimault’s family-friendly The King and the Mockingbird (rated PG), the 30-years-in-the-making 1980 animated filmnarrated by a witty bird, as well as Robert Altman’s experimental political satire Brewster McCloud, in all its bird-poop-murder-filled absurdity. Like Aristophanes’ The Birds, Altman’s wild film uses birds as running metaphors in an exploration of various shortcomings in human society.

Birds are used metaphorically in Aristophanes’ play to explore, among other ideas, flight, freedom, and victory; the playwright also references the prosody of bird song through onomatopoetic language. Aristophanes the ornithologist closely links birds to themes and concepts in his play. As part of American Museum of Natural History’s EarthFest, the museum will feature The Bird Zone, reveling in the splendor of birds,with a concert, scientific and philosophical bird walks, arts and crafts, and children’s bird-themed literature (April 22). Festivities will include a full day of drop-in family programs, with the music of French composer and ornithologist Olivier Messiaen’s iconic 1958 work, “Catalogue of Birds,” played in live excerpts by various solo pianists throughout the day in the Hall of North American Forests. That evening in the same hall, solo pianist Taka Kigawa will perform select movements from Messiaen’s nearly-three-hour composition emulating myriad birdsongs. Following the concert, philosopher Simon Critchley and Paul Sweet, the museum’s Collections Manager in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology – Ornithology, will discuss the philosophical implications of flight, noting various winged objects in the museum. 

On May 12, the New-York Historical Society’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum’s 6th annual Meet the Fledglings will see the Wild Bird Fund visiting the museum—with actual fledglings in their care—to teach children about birds as part of the exhibition Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife.

In addition to Karathanos’ production of The Birds, a range of other festival programs will take place at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The exhibition Nature of Justice: On The Birds will be on display in the garden and lobby from May 3-13, 2018. Commissioned by Onassis Cultural Center New York and curated by Protocinema founder Mari Spirito, it will feature works that share themes with The Birds, by Machine Dazzle, Louise Lawler, Sofia Stevi and Theo Triantafyllidis. 

On May 7, with an introduction by Mari Spirito, Afroditi Panagiotakou will moderate a Visual Artists’ Talk with panelists Andreas Angelidakis, Reem Fadda, and Anne Pasternak. They will unpack themes around corruption and the failure of democracy, and how these concerns are addressed in their own work practices, in the exhibition, and in the play. 

On May 5, Paul Sweet, American Museum of Natural History ornithologist and head of the museum's famed collection, will lead Bird Walks through Brooklyn Bridge Park. 

St. Ann’s Warehouse Artistic Director Susan Feldman will speak with director Nikos Karathanos and members of the cast about their production of The Birds, in a post-show discussion on May 10.