Aristophanes' Wasps
Sophocles' Philoctetes
Translated by Peter Meineck
Directed by Robert Richmond

October 26 and 27, 1994
Trueblood Theatre
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI

Reviewed by Dana D. Buck
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

On October 26 and 27, 1994, the London-based Aquila Theatre Company brought to the University of Michigan's Trueblood Theatre a unique and powerful double bill -- new translations of both Aristophanes' Wasps and Sophocles' lesser-known Philoctetes.

Aquila Productions, the brainchild of producer/translator Peter Meineck, is a young professional company which specialises in producing new and innovative versions of classical drama. Meineck's translations are textually and texturally faithful to the originals, yet achieve a freshness and relevance rarely found in modern productions of these ancient texts. With this US tour, the eighth in the company's short history, Meineck and his five versatile actors achieve a bold and fascinating fusion of the comic and dramatic elements in the two plays. This balance, coupled with the stripped-down, 'three boards and a passion' style of staging which the rigor of touring nearly always necessitates, makes for clever and compelling theatre of the first order.

Wasps is arguably Aristophanes' best-known comedy, and the modern theatregoer doubtless has at least some pre-formed ideas of what will transpire. Meineck's version, however, blasts away such preconceptions with the first few opening lines. The story of obsessive juror Procleon (Robert Richmond) and his son Anticleon (Celia Nelson), who attempts to cure his father's addiction to the pleasures of political and legal corruption, becomes a wildly contemporary music-hall comic revue. Utilizing a bare stage, a table, and a few chairs, Meineck's troupe enthusiastically shocks and assails the sensibilities of the audience non-stop. Slapstick sight- gags, bad burlesque jokes, and bawdy innuendos abound as the cast furiously and frenetically romps through the tale and through the theatre. In the finest Artaudian tradition, the actors provide an in- your-face theatrical experience, sometimes soaking the unsuspecting audience with their mammoth phallus-like squirt guns, seating themselves unceremoniously in the laps of spectators, and dragging them onstage to participate in the song and dance.

Despite the broad strokes with which Aquila's Wasps is painted (reminiscent of Benny Hill, Monty Python and Rocky Horror), or perhaps because of them, the production seems at once both classical and uncomfortably contemporary. Aristophanes' Athens, a chaotic society filled with unscrupulous and ambitious politicians whose highest form of entertainment is litigation, is chillingly like our own. In true classic comic tradition, the audience is led to laughter and then smitten with social satire when they least expect and are most succeptible to it. Aquila's Wasps would have made the antique playright proud.

Sophocles' drama Philoctetes provides a wonderful counterpoint to this version of Wasps. Meineck's new translation, directed by Robert Richmond, is an exciting retelling of the epic story, set in an ancient Celtic millieu, using Conan the Barbarian greatswords, primitive furs and tattered plaids, and haunting Celtic music to transport the audience to a mythic and fantastic other world. Director Richmond reasoned that Sophocles' own contemporary audience was equally far removed from the reality of the events depicted in the play--the Trojan War was hundreds of years before Philoctetes was produced--and they also would have treated the play as the telling of a myth.

While the Aquila Philoctetes is in some respects a simple and straightforward rendition of the play, this version is notable for several reasons. Primary among these is Steve Owen's performance as Philoctetes. Because of the constant, all-consuming pain Philoctetes suffers from his leg wound, it is difficult for the actor to keep the character from becoming emotionally two-dimensional. The danger, once an emotional plateau is achieved, is that the audience will be considerably less affected as events unfold in the play. Owen and Richmond skillfully avoided this by giving Philoctetes a pathetic and almost comic desperation, while maintaining his sense of inner strength and dignity, which provided a multifaceted and complex character.

Also notable is the moving performance of Nina Lucking as Neoptolemus. While the portrayal of Achilles' son by a woman is undoubtably nontraditional, Ms. Lucking brings to the role a gentle sensitivity and supremely feminine strength which adds unusual resonance and depth to the developing relationship between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes. In addition, the use of two sword- wielding barbarian amazon women (Karlyn Stephen and Celia Nelson) as the chorus allows them to craft distinct and differing personae as they interact with the principals in the play.

While the play was performed, as was Wasps, on a bare stage, for Philoctetes the company made use of a magnificent mottled green square of silk cloth, perhaps twenty feet on a side, as the sole setpiece. Through remarkable and ingenious staging, this cloth became almost another character, being used alternately as billowing sea, dark cave, rocky terrain, and a symbol of Philoctetes' pain as the cast raised and dropped it from pulleys upstage.

Aquila brings to its audience a brace of scripts imbued with profound vitality, flawlessly and compellingly produced, making for a truly special and enlightening theatrical experience. This reviewer recommends Aquila without qualification--catch them if you can!

Dana D. Buck

(Dana D. Buck is a director/designer with experience in museum exhibition preparation, all phases of theatrical production, and arts administration.)