Unhinged, Unexpected Old Comedy sends America to Hell


I’d meant to devote most of this column to the superb revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which looks better than ever, as acted by a near-flawless cast in James Macdonald’s gorgeously orchestrated new production. But an unexpected comic intervention has temporarily unhinged my mind, driving out most of the allegedly intelligent things I meant to say about Top Girls. Comedy does get in the way, and since life even at its bleakest is always a joke, we just have to accept the fact. I’ll try to recover my sanity as I go along, so that I have space left for Churchill & Co. But first I’ve got to rewire my brain circuits by trying to sort out the many flavors in David Greenspan’s stew.

And what a stew, since Old Comedy, at Classic Stage Company, is Greenspan’s free adaptation of Aristophanes’ Frogs, part of Target Margin Theater’s ongoing perusal of ancient Greek sources—and by “free,” I don’t merely mean “loose” or “updated.” I mean the verbal equivalent of what happens when dozens of circus clowns escape from a midget car and run crazy all over the arena. Greenspan being a highly intelligent and alert artist, the clowns in his brain are well up on politics, economics, history, and literature, as well as Broadway musicals and fart jokes. If you think you might need footnotes, don’t panic: This is deconstruction at its most laureled and hardiest—the footnotes are already in the script.

For centuries, Aristophanes has been a torment to theatermakers. His boldly theatrical inventions are irresistible; creating a viable contemporary equivalent for the knotty, filthy, magically musical poetry he embodied them in is nigh on impossible. Almost every line, classical scholars say, contains an obscene pun; most also contain a long-dead topical joke. As inchoate in plot as vaudeville shows, his plays are saturated with political preachments; nobody seems to know how seriously Athenian audiences took them. I’ve lived through decades of attempts to bring Aristophanes to life in the theater. Apart from the water ballet Burt Shevelove staged in the Yale swimming pool for his and Stephen Sondheim’s version of Frogs, they were all either laboriously unfunny or wanly ineffectual. But at Old Comedy, for the first time in my life, I found myself thinking: “This must be something like what Aristophanes’ audience experienced.”

A lot of Greenspan’s work isn’t funny, either, but that’s intentional: He uses humor primarily as an escape from the political fury that fuels the piece—expressed, much the way Aristophanes expressed his anger, in a torrent of outrageous, excessive satirical imagery. One difficult-to-duplicate convention of Aristophanic comedy is the parabasis, the moment at the play’s center when the chorus traditionally drops its masks and comes downstage to address the audience directly, as fellow citizens, on some current political topic. Greenspan, at this moment, invites us to imagine, in graphic detail, what it would be like to watch George W. Bush getting waterboarded.

When Aristophanes wrote Frogs, Athens’ theater, like its political glory, was in decline, dragged down by the cost of an endless, unwinnable war. The play’s premise—the outstanding temptation that has lured generations of adaptors—displays Dionysus, god of drama, descending to Hades to bring back from the dead a tragic poet who can re-inspire the city. Aeschylus and Euripides compete for the job; Aristophanes’ distaste for the moral subversiveness of the latter’s plays was already a familiar joke.

Greenspan’s splintered adaptation builds a running analogy between Athens’s miserable condition and our own. The corpses that Charon ferries across the Styx come in U.S.-flag-draped coffins; the frogs that ridicule Dionysus chorally sing, in Greenspan’s version, about their slow extermination by corporate polluters. The poets’ battle in Hades becomes a potted history of literary rivalries, with Stein and Joyce, Whitman and Twain, and even Miller and Williams all pitching in. Traditional American pursuits like racism, religion-based homophobia, and the smugness of affluence bubble up in the verbal stew. Greenspan’s sardonic jokes rarely stop, reaching out in all directions. The occasional songs, scored by Thomas Cabaniss for percussive solo instruments like marimba and toy piano, add rhythm to the headlong raucousness, staged by David Herskovits in Target Margin’s customary anything-goes manner, its casting cheerfully blind to gender and ethnicity.

Yes, it’s all too much, but as the great American playwright Mae West once remarked: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Greenspan’s profusion can be exhausting; Pedro Pascal, spouting Dionysus’s word-streams with tireless geniality, isn’t the only cast member who sounds vocally fatigued. The one performer always seemingly on top of the situation is Derek Lucci, doing dazzling work as Dionysus’s slave Xanthias, whom Greenspan has turned from wise-ass underling into the evening’s emcee, a blend of ringmaster, stand-up comic, and lead vocalist. The American Empire may be dead on its feet, but Lucci’s assurance, amid the multiple explosions of Greenspan’s mad string of intellectual firecrackers, proves that American theater still has plenty of resourcefulness left.

The revival of Top Girls shows that we have, as well, plenty of first-rate actresses. On first acquaintance, Caryl Churchill’s cunningly built, intriguing study of contemporary women’s roles and rights might prove elusive: I recall its original 1982 production striking me as both less richly written and more schematic than the fascinating event MTC has put onstage at the Biltmore. The cast’s high-voltage acting power allows director James Macdonald to balance the characters’ rival grievances and competing emotional needs, sculpting the frequent passages of simultaneous multiple monologue Churchill calls for so that we can see, even from the opening luncheon-party fantasy, that this is an impressionist play. Rather than asserting that women must be this or that, Top Girls dramatizes the questions they faced in earlier eras, and face now, in determining who they are and what they want; the possible solutions are not achieved but laid side by side, like the dots in a Seurat painting that form a meaningful picture only when you step back a few paces.

What keeps you locked in the picture are the stunning performances, particularly Elizabeth Marvel’s, with Marisa Tomei and Martha Plimpton both running her a very close second. If the electricity they generate nightly could light your home, Equity could put Con Ed out of business.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 20, 2008

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