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Friday, June 6, 2008

Aristophanes is still dead

Old Comedy, recommended by New York’s most literate critic, Michael Feingold in the Voice(who seems to have loved it because it is full of esoteric references, all of which he got), is David Herskovits (and Target Margin Theater) and David Greenspan’s rework of Aristophanes’ Frogs.

I’ve seen many attempts to revive Aristophanes, and the only successful one was Al Carmines’s Peace 40 years ago, which kept the bare bones of the plot and made an Al Carmines musical of the rest. (Franz Schubert tried to do something like this with Lysistrata. But he lacked Al C's pissass pizzazz.)

Old Comedy was particularly bad. Like all attempts at Frogs, they had no idea what to do with the playwrights’ contest, so it was a mere bore, incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the playwrights of the fifth century B.C.E. I got all the esoteric jokes, every one of the mythological and dramaturgical references, all the Tartarean in-jabs that no one else seemed to know – but none of them, none of them, were funny. And I agreed with all the political humor, attacks on Bush, Cheney, Iraq, et al. – but none of them were new. (Several were as old as Aristophanes.) The scene with Charon was good, because he was portrayed by Tina Shepard, a good actress, but the rest, though farcical and knockabout and learned as all heck, didn’t draw a giggle or a smirk from those of us who stayed. (The actors bade a cheery farewell to the first walkers-out – in later scenes, they did not do so – it must be depressing.) So I’m annoyed with Michael F and shall tell him so. Keep your erudition to your salon conversation.

And it wasn't just the script, you know - there was so much cutting we had no chance to learn, from interaction, who the characters were - you knew or you didn't know - and it didn't make any difference which. If the show had been slower, and given us more shtick to let us meet Dionysus and his slave and Herakles to boot, we might have had time to find their shenanigans funny.

The one moment when the show came alive was the Frogs' Chorus and invocation of Iacchos (footnoted), when there was an energy present, a liveness painfully absent from everything else on stage.

Aristophanes on the modern stage is a dead letter, sure ruin where the tragedies can at least be funny. Pointed sketch humor does not travel through eons. Edith Hamilton compared Aristophanes's anarchic wit to Gilbert's, but Gilbert had Sullivan; Aristophanes needs one. Can we send someone down to the Underworld to bring back Al Carmines, perhaps? (In any case, neither Aristophanes nor anyone else has any use for David Greenspan.)

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