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THEATER REVIEW

When Drive-By Laughs Spare No Icon

January 26, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Two men enter with ratty-looking puppets attached to their hands. One puppet looks like the Froot Loops bird after getting caught in a gang war. No, this isn't a bus-and-truck version of "The Lion King." It's Aristophanes' "The Birds," as fractured and retold through the antic vision of John Glore and also performers Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas--three men otherwise known as Culture Clash.

"The Birds" tells the story of what happens when imperfect humans invade the realm of the bird kingdom, here called Cloudcuckooland. Aristophanes believed that if we humans sully whatever we touch, at least our amazing catalog of faults and hypocrisies is endlessly entertaining. This catalog is fodder for Culture Clash, which updates the play to present-day California, and also for excellent straight man Victor Mack and a talented four-member bird band. The show, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and South Coast Repertory, is having its premiere at the small stage at South Coast Rep.

The plot, such as it is, begins when a seemingly innocent Foxx (Mack) convinces his tag-along buddy Gato (Montoya) to leave the world of drive-bys, riots and floods and help him take over the stratosphere by seducing its current rulers, the birds. Foxx is in fact a despot in waiting who is only interested in ruling the birds, a fabulous assortment of creatures created by costumer Shigeru Yaji from household objects. Each one different, they sport turkey-baster beaks and feathers made from toilet-seat covers, saucier brushes and plastic flags like the ones beloved by car dealerships. The birds (Gunnar Madsen, Vincent Montoya, Amy X Neuburg, Susan Zelinsky) also form a band and provide salsa, rap or whatever's called for at the drop of a hat.

In Foxx's attempt to establish a kingdom for himself on Cloudcuckooland, he must deal with a stream of interlopers making demands for themselves in the new world. In this quick-change sequence, Culture Clash does its finest work. Dashing in and out, the three men portray, among many others, a supremely nerdy IRS agent, a man in a yarmulke insisting on a Holocaust museum, a rhyming member of the Rainbow Coalition, a trio of turbaned Indians all looking for "Jerry Maguire" on video and a Hollywood exec pitching a disaster movie that would be "the Amistad meets the Titanic."

The play meanders and nearly crashes, especially during some of the messily choreographed musical numbers. Director Mark Rucker is an efficient midwife to the shenanigans, but he fails to provide an arc for the story, which causes the show to sag particularly in its middle section, when we lose track of who wants what and why.

But "The Birds" hits so many anti-PC hot buttons so joyfully that it offers a refreshing burlesque on our confusing times. The humor builds not because of its insight but by the sheer volume of it, and Culture Clash gets a quick laugh from just about every major headline in the last year. Woody Allen, Princess Di, Rodney King, White House interns and Mexican gardeners who favor leaf blowers get hauled mercilessly onstage for their moment of parody. The beauty of Culture Clash, which mirrors Aristophanes' own talent, is that it trips so good-naturedly through impolite material that it defuses potential land mines.

There is a slight lesson in "The Birds." As Foxx begins to metamorphose into a sort-of young Idi Amin, it becomes clear that the very trash he wants to exclude from his kingdom--all of our messy, unpredictable, laughably outrageous behavior--those are the very things that make the world worth populating.

In Christopher Barreca's nifty design, the small stage is ringed off by wires, like a boxing ring, and up above dozens of white balloons wait pregnantly to be released from their netting. When those balloons finally come down, the effect is clumsy. But up above, and later, once they inhabit the penned-in stage, they are effervescent, unpredictable props. "The Birds" is like these balloons--at times disappointing but altogether a lovable, fun mess.

The plot may have a take-it-or-leave quality. Loose ends are forgotten rather than tied up. But you've got to hand it to Culture Clash--loose ends or not, it knows how to show an audience a good time.

*

* "The Birds," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 22. $26-$41. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

A co-production of South Coast Repertory and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. By John Glore and Culture Clash. Adapted from the play by Aristophanes. Directed by Mark Rucker. Music and music direction by Michael Roth. Sets Christopher Barreca. Costumes Shigeru Yaji. Lights Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz. Choreography Sylvia C. Turner. Sound B.C. Keller. Production manager Michael Mora.

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