Saturday, February 23, 2008

Review-Idea: Bad Plays; Frogs

Yesterday, I was working on a friend on the Onion's crossword. One of the clues was "Where 'good' is 'bad.'" The answer was "in slang," but today I'm thinking the answer might sometimes be "the theater." This thought dawns on me because I've just come from the play Frogs, or Old Comedy, or Another Play Entirely; a play so chaotic that it has three names, depending on where you're hearing about it from.

The conceit, although confusing to sort through, seems to be thus: a production of Aristophanes' Frogs is being put on. Aristophanes' Frogs is a comedy wherein Dionysus, god of wine and drama, takes his slave Xanthias into Hell to try and find Euripides. Dionysus wants Euripides to come back and save Athens through his beautiful poetry. But the production of Another Play Entirely is not in any way 'faithful' to the original production; chaos reigns onstage, actors swap roles continually, texts from John Lennon, Bob Marley, MLK, and Charles Cavendish Clifford impose themselves on the text.

This play is very problematic to review because, by any of the usual standards of theater, it is terrible. But precisely for every reason that the play would normally be considered 'terrible,' it actually succeeds. The key is in the deep sincerity of the actors and the need to tell the story. The irreverence and the childishness is not in a spirit of opposition, where the actors condescend or assault the audience; rather they are trying to help the audience understand, to tell them a story. It is rather like having a child tell you an important story.

Take, for instance, the music, composed by Thomas Cabaniss and the cast as a whole, and performed with accompaniment by Jonathan Hart Makwaia. The songs are chaotic, sporadic, and often overpowering; there is a bluntness of style that helps convey the rawness of the material being sung about. At one point, for instance, the ensemble appears as frogs (for which the play bears its original name). They sing the original Greek chant which the frogs traditionally sing ("brekekeke koaxkoax") in loud, brassy tones, and cavort around the stage in a faux-ballet, mimicking all the while closeminded critics. The tone is too sharp and (ironically) too chaotic to be arrived at by accident. There is a distinct, unsettling effect which all of this mayhem aims at.

And this is not unpleasant. The characters are endearing; John Kurzynowski's Dionysus is a truly empathetic character, no matter how flagrant his show-queen attitude is. He provides one of the windows through which the audience can watch this strange spectacle and not be completely alienated; he continues to long for a show without the constant interruption of liberal politics and heavy cynicism (both of which pervade the play). At one point he sings about wanting another number about show queens, because they're tame and uncomplicated; several times he repeats the phrase "This was supposed to be a comedy."

There is, often in art, a strain of almost anti-artistic art; art that takes bad taste or blunt content and use them to stir up stronger feelings in the audience than the usual tame, formally pleasing fare. And yet, in order to succeed they need a heavy reliance on comedy. Bertold Brecht, for instance, constantly strove for a way to overthrow the traditional ways of looking at theater, and often held up 'bad' theater as examples of better ways of approaching his theater. And often audiences have embraced shows despite their violations of all the rules; neo-classical scholars had to exempt Shakespeare from their perfect Aristotelian unities. Certainly, Another Play Entirely makes a sporting event to throw all the rules it can lay its hands on out the window, and despite the odds against it makes itself an enjoyable evening.

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