United Players of Vancouver

The Frogs

June 4th -27th, Thursday through Sunday, at 8 pm

At the Jericho Arts Centre

by Lichen Tilley

The June 4 opening night performance of The Frogs was comical, lively and entertaining--a play that should not be missed!

I was curious to see how the director, Brad Reed, was going to make this play relevant. Was he going to be topical or was he going to use a broad approach to this ancient comedy? His choice was the latter, and while some of the audience did not thoroughly understand the historicity of the play, the innovative staging created an enjoyable evening of theater for everyone.

There have always been questions about the title: why was it called The Frogs, since they do not play a major role in the action? Probably because of the tradition in Greek drama of using animal choruses in old comedy. Reed's decision to have both of the Choruses, the Frogs and the Initiates, speak individually rather than in unison is non-traditional and creative.

When Aristophanes wrote the play (first version 405 BC), the war between Athens and Sparta was not going well for the Athenians, and although they had won a naval battle the previous summer, they had lost an untold number of men and were forced to employ inexperienced generals, and resort to using slaves, mercenaries and mountebanks to fight the war. Athenian currency was being debased and the prospects of the citizens were not good.

Athenian poets and playwrights had always been a conduit for political sentiment, but the heavyweights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes had died.

The plot merges two story lines which were common in Greek comedies: a descent into Hades with the subsequent resurrection of great men; and the portrayal of Dionysus, god of tragedy, (a late addition tothe Greek pantheon), as a burlesqued anti-hero. The play's two themes are how to save Athens and how to save the art of "tragedy".

The genre, which had been perfected by a series of excellent Athenian dramatists, had reached a low point. Sophocles and Euripides had dominated the stage. Sophocles had been more successful although Euripides was appreciated for his less esoteric style. The second half of the play is based on this literary theme and includes many references to Greek literature. In fact, this comedy is one of the first examples of literary criticism.

In case it is not apparent to the audience, Reed chooses to make the political theme evident by a mini-protest at the beginning of the play. Even so, I am not sure the audience discerned this aspect of the play, but merely was entertained by its farcical aspects, although enjoyment at that level was certainly acceptable in Athens. Additionally, Reed has used simple but interesting costuming (by Catherine Carr) and has employed various stage effects to engender comedic appeal. Although a niggling question was : why the lack of costume for Zanthias?

The set and lighting were excellent, minimalist and elegant, with seats raked so the action could be seen easily. Behind the seats was a backdrop of dark blue sky and stars. A balcony outside the stage was even utilized!

The masks by Melinda Esworthy and Jennifer Patterson were charming. An ingenious decision, which set the scene and mood, was to position masked frogs near the entrance and around the stage. They appeared to be statues until they startled everyone by leap-frogging about the set. (Some of them must have been Canadian frogs because they said "ribbet" instead of "koax".)

Crickets could be heard in the background upon entering. The smell of incense was a nice touch forecasting the entrance of the Initiates, who were choreographed with yoga-like postures and macarena arm positions. The music was Madonna's latest hit and the incongruity of words, music and movements was amusing. The Chorus of the Eleusian Initiates is intended to make the underworld seem a place of fun... and they did.

A tape of barking dogs as well as servants portrayed as dogs, chasing Dionysus and Zanthias (Abbott- and Costello-like) to the tune of "The Flight of the Bumblebees" were other little details which created humour..

A servant in a French maid costume, Aeacus done up in an S & M uniform, and landladies portrayed as Siamese twins added to the farcical atmosphere. An innovative ferry was coyly labeled "River Styx Water Taxi". (Its boatman was darkly played by Sean Ayzen.)

Although "deus ex machina" was not employed, the descent from the ceiling of weight scales with which to weigh the dramatists' words, was interesting. But when Pluto came out in roller skates, it seemed a bit too gimmicky.

Moving the Chorus of the Initiates into the audience was a great bit of staging. It provided a WWF atmosphere for the two literary rivals. The Chorus' individual exhortations to continue the debate, kept the pace up; however, some of the lines were muffled because of this positioning and deliberate lack of unison.

Dionysus, energetically portrayed by David Purvis, initially starts out on a quest to the underworld, with his slave, Zanthias, (Melinda Esworthy), to find Euripides, who has recently died. Dionysus has a desire (similar to a craving for sex or soup) for "good" playwriting. After a journey, fraught with slapstick adventure, he returns with Aeschylus, another famous and more rhetorical playwright, to satisfy both underlying purposes of the play.

Although there is supposed to be a character shift in Dionysus from the first half to the second half of the script, in this production, Dionysus' characterization seems almost too inept, frenetic and feeble minded. At times, Dionysus' pratfalls seemed overdone, albeit agile! During the second half of the play, Purvis, who seriously lampoons the role in the first part, regains some credibility when he acts as judge between Euripides and Aeschylus.

Dionysus and his servant, both, might have varied their facial expressions in the journey part of the play. In fact, the character of Zanthias might have been more varied "in toto". Esworthy tended to play her role on one note while more subtlety is needed to portray the facets of this stock but important character. There was little modulation in her tone of voice or volume. In general, the movements of the actors were overly exaggerated, particularly when "prancing", which was used excessively.

Once in Hades, after several misadventures, Dionysus is asked to judge who is the better dramatist. Euripides or Aeschylus? Euripides has been quarreling with Aeschylus over the right to occupy the Chair of Tragedy. Kevin Spenst is well cast as Euripides and handled his role aptly, particularly in presenting the argument that he is the better. His change from offensive to defensive was less convincing because of a tendency to "mug".

Aeschylus needed a bit more substance for his role as "saviour of Athens". Todd Thomson, who plays Aeschylus, although the winner of the contest in the play, appeared slightly weaker than Euripides in his role, but that may have been directorial preference, since Aeschylus was not Dionysus'original goal and  his choice for "resurrection" is a surprise.

The rest of the cast did a creditable job of providing background and atmosphere. The dialogue was lively and believable. There was no intermission. Overall, the production was an enjoyable surprise, although my classics professor would have turned in his grave over the mispronunciation of "Alcibiades".

Today, The Frogs might seem to be a silly play and appreciated merely as low comedy, but it is a complex play with many allusions to the politics and culture of the times.

The Artistic Director, Andree Karas, indicated that this was the last play of their season and United Players are starting their subscription drive for the next season. They have sold approximately 200 of 500 subscriptions. This is the company's 40th year and next season, they will be performing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Cherry Orchard, School for Wives, The Herbal Bed, and Antigone -- a very diverse lineup of plays. This company deserves to be supported because of its daring and creative productions at affordable prices.