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Comedy Turns 2500: Theatre Season Opener Reimagines Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds’

'The Birds' at Davidson CollegeThe Davidson College Theatre Department opens its 2015-16 season on Wednesday, Oct. 21 with a comedy nearly as old as the genre of comedy itself, Aristophanes' The Birds, newly translated and recast in the political dystopia of America today.

Associate Professor of Theatre Mark Sutch directs the ribald, "open-season" approach of the script, translated by Professor of Classics Keyne Cheshire.

"I translated at the level of the joke, not the level of the word," said Cheshire.

"We've been updating the script throughout rehearsal, sometimes based on what works best with current events," said Sutch.

From national elections hijinks to the small-town suburban concerns of Lake Norman, North Carolina, the American news cycle circa 2015 provides plenty of fodder for Aristophanes' original comedic premise: Two fellows reject America, declare God an illegitimate ruler and set out to establish a paradise among the birds. Cheshire's translation and Sutch's artistic direction preserve the subversive, riotous humor of the native Greek.

"Expect a fun production marked by inventive gags, a healthy dose of filth and a live rock band," tease promotional materials. "Contains profanity, innuendo and God knows what else. Recommended for ages 17 and up."

Davidson College students Blake Steinberg '17, Brooke Brazer '16 and Cy Ferguson '16 composed the play's 26 musical selections, ranging from indie rock "Greek chorus" numbers to pop music parodies.

"It depends on what you call a ‘song,'" quipped Sutch.

To create the "paradise among the birds," Professor of Theatre Joe Gardner designed a largely aerial set with plenty of upright steel ladders, ropes and aerial climbing silks, with lighting design by Technical Director Neil Reda.

Carlos Cruz, UNC Charlotte assistant professor of voice and movement, rounded out the creative team by consulting in rehearsals that included all the precise and physically demanding work of performing an entire play largely off of terra firma.

Happy Birthday to Comedy

The Birds is a centerpiece in Davidson's yearlong celebration of the 2500th anniversary of comedy, as reckoned by the first recorded performance of a Greek comedy by Aristophanes.

Last semester, Cornell University Aristophanes scholar and Professor of Classics Jeffrey Rusten clarified the chronology of comedy during a campus visit to Davidson.

"In March of 486 BCE, the new dramatic genre kômôidia (comedy) was added to the festival of Dionysus in Athens to take its place alongside tragedy. So, 2500 = 2015 + 486 - 1 (because there was no ‘year zero" between 1 BCE and 1 CE)," recaps Davidson's Chair of Classics and W. R. Grey Professor of Classics and History Peter Krentz, who organized Rusten's visit.

Krentz is also a driving force in the college's ongoing "Humor & ...." yearlong series of informal lectures that look at the topic of humor through various academic lenses.

The lens of the Theatre Department and Classics Department will be aimed back to antiquity and forward to tomorrow morning's news when The Birds hits the stage.

As one campus wag put it, "It's the world premiere of messing with a classic."

The Birds runs Oct. 21-25 in the Duke Family Performance Hall of Knobloch Campus Center. Wed.-Thur., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $12 general admission, $10 seniors/military/faculty/staff, $6 students. For tickets, please visit the Union Ticket Office or call 704-894-2135, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Mon.-Fri.