This Bird’s Flown
Written and directed by Alex Hacker
At The Yellow Sign Theatre, 1726 N. Charles St., through June 9
The white marble columns and statues we see when we think of ancient Greece are only an illusion. They were originally painted with garish colors that have been blasted away by the years. Greek drama has undergone a similar process. We tend to think of tragedies as noble and austere, but even the Athenian playwright Euripides knew that mythic heroes are most often no more than glorified thugs.
If Alex Hacker, the writer and director of This Bird’s Flown: A Travesty of Antiquity, at the Yellow Sign Theatre, has a guiding spirit, it is indeed Euripides—though, as one audience member yelled out after a preview of the production, there’s plenty of David Mamet mixed in (the language, in other words, is brilliantly foul).
The play, Hacker’s debut as a playwright and director and Yellow Sign’s first full-length scripted production, may not last for millennia, but it is the rare attempt to update classical tragedy that does justice to both the ancient source material and the contemporary world—despite the play’s subtitle and the author’s warning that “no attempt has been made to maintain anything resembling historical or mythological accuracy.” The play’s success comes not in spite of this caveat, but because of it. In short, we have no idea what ancient tragedies were actually like and attempts to revive them most often say more about us than the Greeks.
The production starts with a surprisingly effective set—a marbleized stage with a set of stairs, a couple of busts, and a series of columns made from books. All of this is scrawled over with graffiti, in both ancient Greek and modern English. One of the marble busts, presumably of Helen, has an X scrawled over the eyes and an anarchy symbol on the breast.
It is into this anarchic scene that a stunned Nelly (Adam Smith) stumbles in a black suit and tie, returning from a funeral. He looks about the wreckage, finds his wife gone, and exits just as Phil (Naomi Kline) climbs through a window onto the upper section of the stage. He (the character is male, though Kline is not) opens a book, pulls out a steampunk syringe, takes off a combat boot, shoots up into his foot, and nods off, as Nelly returns with his older brother Aggy (Alex Hacker).
Hacker is a strong actor, bringing actual rage and menace to Aggy’s violent berating of his brother for letting Paris and his crew hang out and “fuck your wife silly” before abducting her.
If you haven’t gotten it yet, This Bird’s Flown is a retelling of the events leading up to the Trojan War. Aggy is Agamemnon—the leader of the Greek forces—Nelly is his brother Menelaus, and old junky-poet Phil is Philoctetes. But here, the Greeks are cast as a gang out of a Tarantino movie or the television show Sons of Anarchy. As Aggy takes out his cell phone to summon the troops, we know to expect a modern Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax, and the rest. And indeed, here they come, one by one, because of the pact they swore to defend whomever the beautiful but faithless Helen married.
For the most part, the gang that arrives is a convincing bunch of thugs. Craig Coletta (the co-director of Yellow Sign Theatre) is a fierce Jack (Ajax), Aggy’s most loyal henchman, and Doug Johnson’s Pat (Patroclus) is also an able goon. But the first conflict erupts when Pat brings along his young boy lover, Willy. (Willy is a stand-in for Achilles.) No one knows or trusts this young boy—played with exceptional teen brattiness by Sarah Jacklin. Jacklin’s smart-ass humor and comically casual sense of violence is in perfect contrast with Hacker’s and Coletta’s more naturalistic thuggery. This is made clear in the costumes as well—for the first two acts, Willy wears armor while the other characters (with the exception of the elder Nestor, in a toga) wear modern attire.
The hodgepodge of ancient and modern, comic and violent, mostly works well and sometimes brilliantly. There’s an amphora full of clever jokes for those with a background in the classics, but the real force comes from stripping the myth away. When Aggy says, “Our mission is to go over there, kill these motherfuckers, fuck their women, and take their valuables,” he’s expressing the ultimate ethos behind all ancient wars.
But there are places where the mixture doesn’t quite take. When the gang returns in Act 3 decked out in armor made from books, holding cardboard swords, the effect is a bit goofy—a drive-by has already occurred, as well as a startlingly realistic torture scene, so why use cardboard swords? But even in campy armor, the acting is mostly naturalistic and superb. Mostly: Mattie Rogers is almost intolerable as Odie (Odysseus). She delivers every line of dialogue with a cutesy squinched-up nose more reminiscent of Urkel than Ulysses. It wouldn’t matter so much if Odie didn’t play such a central role and if we weren’t told again and again how good he is with words. Rogers’ cloying cuteness simply doesn’t fit the character or tone of the play.
But the performance in question was a preview, and Troy wasn’t toppled in a day. Overall, Hacker’s “travesty” does more to bring the works of Sophocles and Euripides back to life than many more “faithful” reproductions. As the Helen in this play shows us, sometimes the faithless most strongly move us.