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Ruffling Feathers for 'Birds'

Theater: Comedy trio Culture Clash hopes its musical premiere in Costa Mesa upsets people left and right.

January 23, 1998|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — The ancient Greek Latinos, a unique breed, may have the world's longest continuous theatrical tradition.

The best contemporary exemplar of this tradition--let's admit it, the only one--is Culture Clash, a trio of actor-writers premiering its musical update of Aristophanes' satire "The Birds" tonight on South Coast Repertory's Second Stage.

Dating back more than two millenia, the Greek antecedants of Culture Clash are described by classicist Andrew Brown as having "a total lack of moral uplift," which he considers "a bracing feature (or a deplorable one, according to taste)."

In representative works of the tradition, "honesty, decency and courage barely exist, and subjects for cheerful humor include torture, rape, blindness and starvation." Moreover, "considerations of relevance, dramatic illusion or consistency of character or motive" are never allowed "to get in the way of a good joke."

Although he's referring to the 11 surviving plays of the 40 or so that Aristophanes wrote, Brown might have been describing Culture Clash's half-dozen major theater pieces.

In fact, the trio's Herbert Siguenza traces the group's brand of comedy back through the agitprop style of El Teatro Campesino, where they trained in the early 1980s, to Aristophanes himself.

"What we do isn't really much different from what he did," Siguenza said in a recent interview at the theater. "He was doing agitprop 400 years before Christ. His stuff reminds us of early plays we did when we didn't even know about him."

Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas, the other two Culture Clashers, point out that they also come to Aristophanes by way of the Marx Brothers, Brecht and Fellini, as well as "the radical theaters you'd see in Venezuela or Brazil."

And let us not overlook the influence of early 20th century American vaudeville, the knockabout British music-hall performers of the late 19th century, and their predecessors: the commedia dell'arte troubadors who sprang up in northern Italy during the 16th century.

"The Greeks were pretty wild," Montoya adds. "When Plato wanted his annual report on the state of the culture, they sent him one of Aristophanes' plays. We feel that 100 years from now, if people want a report, they can read our plays."

Montoya notes that their adaptation of "The Birds"--co-written by SCR literary manager John Glore, with music by Michael Roth--forges a direct "connection to Aristophanes. It's all about society's fragmentation. He came at the end of the Athenian golden age. We're at the end of a millenium."

Offering a blunt message about the corruption of Athenian ideals and society, Aristophanes dramatized the transformation of the birds' utopian realm of Cloudcuckooland into the equivalent of humankind's land of reality below.

Bribery, deceit, manipulation, the promise of illusory hopes, the threat of violence and, perhaps most important, the construction of a wall to separate utopia from reality and exact a toll for passage between them, all contribute to the disintegration of justice and morality.

Similarly, Montoya says, Culture Clash's update of "The Birds" is designed "to force the audience to think about gated communities and ghetto borders, Bel-Air and the barrio, and what separates them. Any of us could screw up a perfect utopia."

Launched in 1984, the trio began doing their shows at small venues in San Francisco and elsewhere the Bay Area. They got their first major play production, however, at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where "The Mission," ran for 11 weeks in 1990.

"The Mission" was a satirical take on Father Junipero Serra, the 18th century "Apostle of California," and the campaign to elevate him to sainthood. Its irreverent premise is that one of Father Serra's mistreated Indian acolytes time-travels to the present and turns up in the body of a struggling comedian living in San Francisco.

That script will be published this spring by the New York-based Theatre Communications Guild in a Culture Clash anthology, "Life, Death and Revolutionary Comedy." The two other scripts include "Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami," (staged in 1996 at SCR following its Miami and Los Angeles premieres) and "A Bowl of Beings" (televised nationally in 1992 on the PBS series "Great Performances").

One surprising feature of their "Birds"--an SCR co-production with northern California's Berkeley Repertory, where it will open in March --is that, in addition to the updated satire, the show is a musical extravaganza with a live band.

"We've never done a live musical before," Montoya says, "and we've got every kind of style: R&B, rap, gospel, salsa, pop rock, New Orleans. There's even a klezmer tune or two in there."

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