NEW YORK – 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.
The festival is produced by Onassis Cultural Center New York for 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 updates The Birds, in which humans seek out the titular creatures to build a new society in the sky, driven by a desire for inclusion and liberation from stagnant mores. With a singular utopian vision and a company of 19 actors, the production will run 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, the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, Metrograph, the 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, during the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The nearly-three-decade bloodbath left Athens depleted though it 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.
Dr. Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, said, “The Onassis Foundation this season invites New York audiences to explore themes ranging from political satire to democracy to social and political awareness, and to revel in what we hope represents the long endurance of the Greek theatrical tradition.”
Afroditi Panagiotakou, Onassis Foundation Director of Culture, said, “Empowered by Nikos Karathanos’ gaze, Aristophanes’ Birds speak of a utopian society, a society-that-cannot-be. They set off our thoughts and emotions about democracy, freedom and equality—a vision that’s always worth fighting for. What they speak of is profoundly human and personal, yet wide-ranging in its social commentary.”
Violaine Huisman, curator of the festival, says The Birds is a “play to reclaim life together in our fraught and divisive political context. To live together with nature; to live together as neighbors and friends and allies; to live together and party and protest together is what I hope for this festival to be about.”
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 (out April 15) 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).
As part of the festival, Metrograph will present four films in dialogue with Aristophanes’ work, May 18-20. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds may share the name but is antithetical to Aristophanes’ play, evoking violence and horror in its disturbing vision of the flock. 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. Also featured, Paul Grimault’s family-friendly The King and the Mockingbird (rated PG), the 30-years-in-the-making 1980 animated film narrated by a witty bird, as well as Robert Altman’s experimental political satire Brewster McCloud, in all its bird-poop-murder-filled absurdity.
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. 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. 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. 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.
Award-winning design group Beetroot has created a special animation about Aristophanes and The Birds that will appear in April on the festival website: https://onassisusa.org/events/