Saturday, September 19, 2009
Late Saturday Afternoon in Long Island City: Curious Frog Theatre Company presents Aristophanes' "Plutus" at Queensbridge Park
We saw a really nice production of Aristophanes' Plutus late this afternoon in Queensbridge Park. Presented by the Curious Frog Theatre Company, which also has been staging the Romeo and Juliet we enjoyed last Sunday in Prospect Park, the production did a good job of making an enjoyable 100 minutes out of what we've always thought Aristophanes' least funny and interesting comedy.
Unlike Lysistrata - which we've loved teaching the last three spring semesters at the School of Visual Arts - or The Clouds or The Frogs or his other comedies, in this late play, produced three years before his death, Aristophanes is not commenting on a current situation in Athens or satirizing a particular individual or event. Plutus is kind of an allegory about wealth. Critics classify it as the only extant ample of ancient Greek "middle comedy," between the "old comedy" plays listed above and the later "new comedy."
We'd read the play and found it pretty boring, so we were interested to see what Curious Frog could do with this rarely-produced comedy (as near as we can tell via a New York Times search, it hasn't been offered in the city since 1963, when an organization called the Group of Ancient Drama, Inc., presented it at the Fashion Institute of Technology).
As it turned out, Curious Frog managed to make Plutus both surprisingly fast-moving and relevant with a skillful seven-person ensemble directed by Whitney Aronson performingly engergetically in a beautiful setting.
The script by written by Whitney Aronson and Reid Aronson, while maintaining the basic storyline, employed everyday language, contemporary references and broad humor. It was already over the top in ancient Greece - the big emphasis on flatulence for laughs - but the adaptation and the choices made in the play definitely improved Plutus from what we can recall numbed us on the printed page.
As the somewhat dense Chremylus and his much smarter and wittier slave Cario, Derby Thomas and Jodie Pfau had some wonderful bits of business and worked off each other effectively, whether they were bantering or doing slapstick. Like the other talented actors, they sometimes directly addressed the audience and broke character as they acknowledged the artificial nature of the farcical situations. They worked really well in tandem and in scenes with the other characters, most of whom played multiple roles as well as served as the chorus.
Some things were played for pure slapstick. Beforehand, the audience were shown YAY and BOO signs, and they were employed cleverly at moments. There was a parody of Don McLean's "American Pie" (with a big sheet of the most relevant lyrics for us to sing along with) and parodies of other pop songs like "The Chapel of Love."
There were echoes of burlesque dancing and vaudeville routines, references to Bernie Madoff (given a Greek name) and some moments that were just so slapsticky-absurd that the audience couldn't help laughing.
These included shtick like the times Serge Castillo - who played Blepsidmus, Mercury and the Honest Man with different comic accents - stormed off ranting in Spanish in response to another character. (He's good on the guitar, too.)
Or when Nick Maccarone (who was very good in Romeo and Juliet, which will play one last time tomorrow in Astoria Park at 4 p.m.), lumbered maniacally about as the Dishonest Man with a Groucho mustache and a carrot-Pinocchio nose.
As the blind god of wealth Plutus, Allen Sermonia (whom we also admired in R&J) succeeded in being funny without skirting the offensiveness of milking visual impairment unduly; of course Plutus is also smelly and filthy (it's still okay to make fun of that as much as you can!), and after his cure, Sermonia mocks the over-the-top triumphalism of contemporary athletes.
Lauren Ashley Smith was probably the most charming in the cast, light and ingratating whether she was Chremylus' daffy wife or Cassandra or the Oracle, and as the Chorus's lead, she had a sweet singing voice - actually the whole cast was pretty tuneful.
Larissa Dzegar proved so versatile that it took us a long time to realize that this actress was both the goddess Poverty - which the hapless Chremylus and his entourage finally learn is a necessary spur to human progress and happiness - and the hysterically funny Old Woman (picture Estelle Getty in Golden Girls talking like Melina Mercouri) reacting to her abandonment by her young airhead boyfriend, Nick Maccarone.
The humor in Aristophanes is not subtle, and the Curious Frog company took advantage of that in their delivery, the musical numbers and their stage business. We were also impressed with the way they gracefully and unobtrusively made changes in the set. And there's actually woven into the play a final short lecture, complete with flip chart, by the god Mercury (Serge Castillo), relevant to our current financial near(?)-disaster.
This was definitely a Plutus for the Great Recession, and far better than we expected from our experience reading Aristophanes' final comedy. Again, we were happy to give a contribution into one of the Greek-themed (like a diner "We Are Happy to Serve You" coffee container) containers used as props and then as a collection plate. We hope Curious Frog will return with two new productions as good as the ones they performed brilliantly this summer.
We're grateful to Curious Frog Theatre Company and to the MTA for the weekend subway constuction that made our trip from Williamsburg to Queensbridge Park such a snap, just 4 stops on the G train and then a shuttle bus took us back and forth - only three passengers each time - to the F train Queensbridge stop not far away from our destination. A lot better than the usual schlep!