Ten months ago, when he began to plan for last week's grand opening, Artistic Director Alexis Solomos told the press what he had in mind: "Not just another summer festival but an international center of Greek drama." That was a reasonable project for the man who for 14 years had been director of the National Theater of Greece. But what did not seem so reasonable was that Solomos' new international center was to be located on a college baseball field in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Yet on the scheduled première night of the Ypsilanti Greek Theater last week, there was a plywood stage covering the infield and classic columns standing in front of the bases of the Eastern Michigan University ball park. From the home-team dugout, a 16-piece orchestra played eerie music, specially composed by Iannis Xenakis, while 1,500 gowned and black-tied first-nighters took their blue-cushioned seats in the weather-beaten grandstand. The guests included Broadway Actress Rosemary Harris and a clutch of local politicians, but this was one première where it was more important to see than be seen.
The first U.S. professional production of Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy was adorned by Dame Judith Anderson as a marvelously menacing Clytemnestra who turned the ball field into a nightmare-real landscape of bloody tragedy. The second night turned tears to laughter, with oldtime Comic Bert Lahr, 70, playing the Birds.
"I understand," said Lahr, an alumnus of the Columbia Burlesque Circuit '23, "that Aristophanes allowed the comedian to do whatever he wanted." But no one in 23 centuries ever winged the Birds as Lahr did. When Prometheus reveals some of Zeus's confidences to him, Lahr calls him "a fink." When Zeus offers Lahr his wife, Bert busses her and then bellows his trademarked "annng-anng-anng." When Lahr stumbles over the pronunciation of "Agamemnon," he quips, "That's Greek to me." At one point, he even digresses into a rendition of his famous Frito-Lay TV commercial. Offering a pickle to the god Heracles, Lahr smirks: "I'll bet you can't eat just one."
The audience somehow swallowed it, pickles and all, and the box-office advance for the remaining weeks of the festival is bigger for Lahr's Aristophanes than for Anderson's Aeschylus. Whether it is good enough to carry Solomos' hoped-for three-month run is another question. A local citizens' committee, which is sponsoring the Ypsilanti Greek Theater, is currently running its second emergency fund-raising drive in three months, its third campaign since the project was dreamed up three years ago.