February 06, 1998



at South Coast Repertory


Reviewed by Rob Kendt


Accepting their ensemble acting awards for Radio Mambo at the 1996 Ovation awards, the serious pranksters of Culture Clash made an appeal to suburban regional theatres: "We want to be your Chicano Wendy Wassersteins," quipped the trio's droll Groucho, Richard Montoya. "Invite us to your theatres. We won't steal anything."


Indeed, Culture Clash was invited that same year by Orange County's ambitious LORT bastion, South Coast Rep, to collaborate on an original adaptation of Aristophanes' The Birds. And of course, these irrepressible three have stolen shamelessly--not just from Aristophanes but from up-to-the-minute pop-cultural icons and demons from Jerry Springer to the Spice Girls. In an adaptation co-written with playwright John Glore and directed by Mark Rucker, the result is the most pointed and seamless Culture Clash extravaganza since 1991's A Bowl of Beings at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.


(Seamlessness is relative with this troupe, and some of it ill suits their presentational sketch-comedy style. It must be said that Michael Roth's musical numbers, performed by a capable onstage band and sung most convincingly by a svelte Susan Zelinsky, are at best effective mood pieces, at worst tinklingly lame.)


Aristophanes' rickety satire of human nature lampooned the desire to get away from it all: His hero nabs rulership of the kingdom of the birds, only to have it beset by all the things he'd tried to escape on earth. This new Birds riffs on plenty of contemporary California references, including the rage for gated communities and stronger borders, but its hero, Foxx (Victor Mack), acts out of little more than cunning and fairy-tale greed, blithely leaving behind his sad-sack homie Gato (Montoya).


Indeed, Foxx's ascent to godhead goes remarkably smoothly, with only two comic speed bumps which provide the show's giddy highlights. One is a hilarious extended scene in which earthly annoyances try to horn in on Foxx's newly incorporated "Cloud Cuckooland"--the avian realm situated crucially between Olympus and earth, and thus able to bring both to their knees. With lightning-quick costume changes and disarmingly egalitarian effrontery which leaves no ethnic or class stereotype unsullied, the Clashers--deadpan Montoya, sunny Ric Salinas, and elastic Herbert Siguenza--create an instant idiot village to tag-team up on Mack's game straight man. He holds up well under the assault. Foxx's other obstacles are a gaggle of latter-day gods (Woody Allen, Princess Di, Mother Teresa, Emiliano Zapata) who fumblingly try to reassert Olympian rule. There are also a few "Brechtian" change-ups sprinkled throughout to take us out of the play's cartoonish world and keep us on our toes.


If the rest of the show is merely a frame for these antics, it's a beautiful and serviceable frame, from Christopher Barreca's Romper Room scenic design and Lonnie Rafael Alcarez's finely complementary lighting to Shigeru Yaji's endlessly witty bird costumes (composed of household items like forks, funnels, and footpads) and B.C. Keller's squawky but unassuming sound design. Here's hoping more regional theatres invite Culture Clash over to steal their stages this winningly.


"The Birds," presented by South Coast Repertory and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Jan. 23-Feb. 28. (714) 708-5555.