Certainly he was the first. But maybe Aristophanes was also the last playwright to produce an uproarious comedy calling for peace in the middle of a popular war. I wouldn’t have thought to mull about The Frogs these days if publicity for Ruth Margraff’s Red Frogs hadn’t invoked it as her inspiration. Though her play’s connection to the Aristophanes comedy turned out to be entirely obscure, I’m glad it led me to pull the slapstick old sage off my shelf. I needed the laughs. And the moral uplift.
Recall: The hero journeys to hell to bring back a dead dramatic poet to rescue the world from its mounting turpitude. Politicians and generals have brought Athens to the brink of economic, social, and ethical collapse, Aristophanes suggests, so it’s time to turn to the city-state’s only reliable saviors: the playwrights. With its famous contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, The Frogs delivers sophisticated political and literary criticism amid topical wisecracks and relentless fart and phallus jokes.
The best that can be said for Margraff’s effort—and for Josh Fox and his International WOW Company’s The Bomb—is that it, too, seeks to integrate a seemingly hostile contemporary idiom with a belief in theater’s power and place in political discourse. Many of Margraff’s and Fox’s young peers have abandoned any concern for theater’s meaningfulness, producing elaborate spectacles and deconstructive escapades that have absolutely nothing to say. In different ways, Margraff and Fox claim their place in a generation reared on Wellman, Wilson, and the Wooster Group (and perpetual TV), yet refuse to follow the trend toward turning the formal insights of such forebears into a framework merely for displaying their own fabulousness.
But despite biting off the big questions—Margraff takes on class, media mendacity, and the patriarchal Old Left; Fox considers connections among violence, paranoia, sex, and war—neither writer makes a successful piece of theater. I’d like to say, neither succeeds yet, although both have now been around long enough that it no longer suffices to call them “promising.”
Red Frogs defies summary—there’s little discernible plot and the sketchiest of stock characters. A wealthy pundit cavorts with her maid, her male colleague and lover (whom she treats as a dog), and a trio of burlesque chorus girls from Coney Island. In a typical outburst, she shrieks, “It’s me voicing over all your tufts of hope inside your shrunken thought balloons! Where you have hoarded nothing but profanity. You take your public ferries to your public Sunken Forests, close your eyes and then pretend you’re renting something for the week.” And so forth for nearly two hours, with plenty of mimed humping and running around: a Coney Island of Margraff’s own mind.
Where Margraff is stubbornly opaque and elliptical, Fox is grandiose and sophomorically blunt. Running more than three and a half hours, The Bomb divides into three distinct parts: an offensively condescending Our Town-like portrait of a small city full of yokels; an exploration of Robert Oppenheimer and the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima (with some clichéd Holocaust imagery thrown in); and an extended meander through post-9-11 New York, beginning with a zombielike procession of the 35 (yes, 35) actors covered in dust. In all three sequences, folks search for true love, express fear of apocalyptic doom, and wonder aloud whether God exists and where evil comes from. You can’t help noticing that though a majority of the actors are women, all the characters pondering moral issues are male, with women serving essentially to light their very long fuses.
Fox assembles some arresting moments—the Asian American woman playing Oppenheimer segues from his description of the bomb to a horrified eyewitness report in Japanese—and he gets a tremendous level of commitment from his young company (though he doesn’t contain their tendency toward self-indulgence). Margraff’s cast, too, goes to it with abandon. They all seem eager to throw themselves into a new kind of theater that, like Aristophanes’, stokes both dissent and deep pleasure. I’m losing confidence, alas, that Margraff and Fox will be among those who create it.
In the meantime, there are the surprising satisfactions of The Front Page Follies—a small-scale liberal revue by a couple of square-looking middle-aged white guys, Peter Ekstrom and Michael Quinn. With Ekstrom (the composer) at the piano, they sing a dozen tunes lampooning the rightward tilt of the Supreme Court, the gun loving of the NRA, and so forth. In a song called “We Deserved It,” they take an unfair swipe at Susan Sontag and others on what they call the “fundamentalist left” for allegedly asserting that the 9-11 attackers were justified, when in fact all she did was question the use of the word cowardly in describing them. And the show ends with a sweet embrace of America’s promise: It’s not exactly radical. Nor is it as wonderfully demented as the songs of Tom Lehrer, in whose tradition it follows. Still, the lyrics are clever—”We’ll mother you and nurture you and shield you from attack/Until you take one step beyond the amniotic sac”—and the show provides the great relief of letting us laugh for a moment at all the grimness around us. If we can’t have Aristophanes, that will have to do.