If, as the saying goes, comedy is tragedy that happens to other people, we could probably date the birth of comedy to the day a caveman that nobody liked got trampled by a mastodon. Cackling, pre-linguistic snorts could no doubt be heard echoing across the plains.
But Davidson College is celebrating the official 2500th anniversary of comedy this year. Scholars date it back to March of 486 BCE, when the new dramatic genre kômôidia (comedy) was added to the festival of Dionysus in Athens to run alongside tragedy.
The performance highlight among the lectures of the “Humor &...” celebration runs this week: a new, irreverent translation of Aristophanes’ “The Birds” by Professor of Classics Keyne Cheshire. (Can you have an especially irreverent version of Greece’s least reverent playwright? Yep. It’s like chocolate cake with even darker chocolate icing.)
A press release for the show in Duke Family Performance Hall recommends it for audiences 17 and older and promises “a fun production marked by inventive gags, a healthy dose of filth and a live rock band. Contains profanity, innuendo and God knows what else.”
Cheshire has a knack for updating old plays, not so much “making” them relevant to current audiences as exploring their timeless relevance in modern ways. He turned Sophocles’ tragedy “Women of Trachis” into “Murder at Jagged Rock,” a drama set in the American West that retains the poetic and thematic sense of the original.
That show became a musical at Davidson College, with songs accompanied by guitar, banjo, upright bass, fiddle and mandolin. “The Birds” will also be a musical: Davidson students Blake Steinberg, Brooke Brazer and Cy Ferguson composed 26 selections, from indie rock "Greek chorus" numbers to pop parodies.
Let me anticipate your objections to attending such a show.
First, Davidson is a long way off, unless you live above Exit 18 of I-77. That may be true for the shows Wednesday and Thursday, which start at 7:30, or even the Friday show at 8. But the Saturday show at 8 and the Sunday matinee at 2 involve no rush-hour traffic. And Duke Hall, which sits at the top of the campus in Knobloch Center, should be big enough to accommodate last-minute drop-ins.
Second, you don’t think you can relate to ancient Greece. You’ll be happy to know director Mark Sutch has set the show in modern North Carolina, where two guys reject America, declare God an illegitimate ruler and set out to establish a paradise among the birds.
Third, you worry that a play from ancient Greece – even updated to modern times – will be as physically stiff as a linen shirt starched overnight. Not here: Professor of Theatre Joe Gardner designed a largely aerial set with upright steel ladders, ropes and aerial climbing silks. Carlos Cruz, UNC Charlotte’s assistant professor of voice and movement, consulted in rehearsals that included the physically demanding work of performing much of a play off the ground.
No excuses, then, readers! Greece your wheels and drive to Cloudcuckooland this week.