Translated by Peter Meineck
Directed by Robert Richmond
Aquila Productions Spring Tour
Wayne State University
March 31, 1994
Reviewed by Kate Mendeloff
Residential College Drama Concentration Department of Theatre and Drama
The University of Michigan
It is difficult to imagine a production of Aristophanes with a cast of four, no set, minimal costumes and eclectic props. But after viewing the Aquila Theatre companys performance last night I found Aristophanes had been served with a vengeance.
The shallow lecture hall platform at Wayne State University in downtown Detroit was bare except for four microphones, a drum set and a lone guitar. Except for a lone Greek word scrawled on the floor in chalk, it looked like a low key folk concert was in store. But when the action began and the four hyperkinetic actors grabbed those microphones and let loose, there was no doubt about the theatricality of the performance. The audience was involved from the first moment. The actors were constantly moving through the auditorium, so that the aisles and seating area became an annex to the stage. ProCleon in particular was always in motion, pushing through the seats, insinuating himself in the laps of female audience members, engaging perople in conversation and often putting people on the spot. When the lone Wasp, who represented the Chorus, appeared armed with his stinger--a Supersoaker watergun- -then the relationship became even more direct. Audience members were cajoled into joining in with the Chorus and unless they buzzed on command they were sprayed without mercy. As well, the company cleverly used audience members to fill in the cast or the action. One young man was brought onstage as the donkey complete with paper bag head. Another was found at the bottom of a pile of actors after the fight between Anti-Cleon and the Chorus. During the Agon, the Chorus sat on the arms of two seats in the front row and conducted a Kazoo orchestra of audience members. As well, the final scene might have aptly been subtitled 'insulting the audience', for a group of patrons was hauled up to form a Conga line for the final dance and were brought forward one by one and teased by ProCleon.
This was all done in good humor and was outrageous but not offensive. It felt very appropriate to the energy of Aristophanes. It was hard to sit back and judge such a participatory production as a critic. I must admit that I kept my pen and paper well out of sight when the actors were roaming and I buzzed with the best of them!
One of the great virtues of the production was its ability to both entertain and teach. The text was very clear and there were some wonderful choices of stage action to elucidate Aristophanes. The Agon, for instance, was handled as a trial and a lesson. Xanthias listed the points for and against ProCleon on a large blackboard. The slave, appropriately played by a mulatto actor, filled the board with the benefits of jury service: bribes, Cleonsfavor, drink, sex etc. and then during Anti-Cleons rebuttal he erased the words one by one until the slate was empty. The parabasis was equally clear. The actor who played the Chorus and bit parts came to a podium dressed as a clergyman and created a comic but very scary Calvinist character. The dramatic effect of this was achieved with the help of a hand-held safety light,which he sometimes focused on himself and sometimes on members of the audience. The harsh lighting set off the actors sculpted features and wild hair. The sense of intimidation he conveyed was enhanced when he turned this interrogation light onto the audience. Producer Peter Meineck admitted that this clergyman was based on conservative religious leader Ian Paisley, and indeed, a very effective caricature was drawn.
When I directed my first production of Aristophanes I was told that his style was about as reverent as a television program like 'Saturday Night Live.' There was a real sense that anything could happen, that no one was spared, that contemporary political satire, improvisation and low humor were the tools of the trade. The Aquila production certainly had the kind of slightly mad improvisatory energy of these television shows and felt true to the spirit of Aristophanes as I have come to know it.
American audiences who want to experience a truly Aristophanic performance will be happy to know that Aquila Productions is planning to include Wasps in its spring 1995 tour along with a new version of Sophocles Philoctetes and Shakespeares Macbeth.
Kate Mendeloff is currently directing Orpheus and Eurydice for the Young People's Theater Company.