Nerds²

NerdsPosterIt’s not often that you get a chance to participate in two versions of the same show less than a year apart. I’ve had the opportunity twice before—once, playing Rosalind in As You Like It with two entirely different casts, and again with two productions of the Hippolytos, once as Hippolytos and once as stage manager—but this year I had my first experience doing so from the director’s standpoint.

Last May, Stanford Classics in Theater mounted a Silicon Valley adaptation of Aristophanes’ Birds, reframed as Aristophanes’ Nerds. Instead of the Athenians Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, we introduced two Wall Street suits, Pete and Dick, who abandon the world of finance for the sunny prospects of Silicon Valley. (Precisely how sunny they are is a matter for debate, but that’s another story.) Pete and Dick enlist Tim Tereus (“senator turned tech guru”) to win over the nerd population with a daring plan: by leveraging their control of the nation’s data, the nerds can “starve out the government and become masters of [their] own destinies.”

The May production was shaped by an almost comical series of unfortunate events. Several of our actors had to drop out due to work or illness, the performance space we booked lost our contract and gave our dates to someone else, and our original director left the project. I received a field promotion from assistant director to director, the cast and crew pulled together, and we managed to come up with a full, fun production.

When the SCS Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance invited us to remount the production at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting in SF earlier this month, I was overjoyed. Having been part of repeat productions before, I knew that the number of insights you gain in the process of adjusting to different audiences, actors, and spaces are enormous. We would face a new set of challenges, but we would also have many creative opportunities we hadn’t had in our beleaguered May production. I would be able to block the show in its entirety, rather than picking up where another director with a very different style left off. We would be able to shape our space to encourage more audience interaction than had been possible in our less-than-ideal lecture hall. New faces, making up about half the cast, would bring new energy to the veteran nerds.

The two biggest challenges for the CAMP production proved to be (1) our one-day rehearsal time, and (2) an audience of classicists more familiar with the original Birds than with the geography and culture of Silicon Valley. The first of these was much less of a hurdle than I’d thought it would be: I and the rest of the crew planned the day meticulously, the cast were attentive and energetic, and, miraculously, no one’s flight was delayed enough to disrupt our schedule.

The second was a more interesting problem. How well would our SF references (both Science Fiction and San Franciscan) carry over to a broader audience? Would an audience of classicists find our tech jokes funny, or simply confusing? Would conference goers return to their hotel rooms after the show saying, “The douche-moron δύσμορος pun was funny, and it was a hoot to see pictures of Richard Martin in nerd glasses, but the rest of the show fell flat”?

Fortunately, the audience was much nerdier than I had given them credit for—and, if the epichoric Silicon Valley references became too much, there were always plenty of dick jokes. But my worries reflect a broader issue in modern productions of ancient comedy. Aristophanes is highly topical and extremely political, continually engaged with the community and events around it. If you watch a production of the Knights without knowing who Cleon is, or see the Lysistrata without swotting up on the eel economy of Boeotia, it really isn’t that funny. In order to give modern audiences an authentic experience of Aristophanes, such references need to be updated to more familiar parallels. Who would want to see a production with projected footnotes explaining each joke?

(The necessity of adaptation is discussed at greater length in SCIT’s recent Eidolon article, and was the topic of CAMP’s fascinating panel at the SCS, “New Skin in Old Wineskins: The Place of Athenian Drama in Modern Society,” organized by Eric Dugdale and Rosanna Lauriola.)

But, in adapting comedies to engage with our own communities and politics, we run the risk of becoming as obscure as Aristophanes, given a few years or a new audience. For example, the May production of our show featured Chris Christie as Heracles. As witnessed by a recent SNL sketch, Christie has largely dropped out of sight, eclipsed by the rise of Donald Trump. Accordingly, we updated our script to include Trump as Heracles (played, with delightful Trumpian facial contortions, by Don Lateiner). Once November 8 passes, however, our script will become more difficult to convincingly update, its entire final scenes requiring significant rewrites.

Should we worry about this? Not necessarily. I would argue for an “adapt early, adapt often” approach to ancient drama. Each readaptation, whether on film like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq or on stage like Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, gives the audience a direct experience missing in productions which attempt to be period accurate. Over time, the accretion of such adaptations bears witness to a larger truth about ancient drama: the timelessness behind its topicality. There will always be a power for the underdogs to overthrow (Birds), a loud and unscrupulous politician to lampoon (Knights), conflicts between rich and poor (Wealth).

The chance to remount a production less than a year after its original production drove home both the power of topicality, and the continuity of the structures behind this topicality. We had no trouble finding a new Heracles figure. The audience had no trouble relating the Nerds to the original Birds. Old jokes and new worked together as beautifully as our half-and-half cast.

In fact, my only real disappointment was that no one laughed at the Lando joke this time around. You would think that would be even more topical than last May, wouldn’t you?

Rhesus

Whatever your opinion on the authorship of the Rhesus—Euripides? His son? Agathon?—it is an unambiguously odd play. No prologue, a Hector who seems more interested in sleeping than fighting the Trojans, a Paris who thinks his judgment of Aphrodite was the best thing that ever happened to Troy. It’s a play that would have driven Aristotle mad, full of characters who begin to act like tragic heroes and then never reappear. The ending (such as it is) invents a mother for Rhesus in the person of an unidentified Muse who steers the play hard right into mystery cult.

It’s one of those plays you never really expect to see a production of. And when you do, you must drop everything to go see it.

Image source
Image source: Christina Georgiadou

Katerina Evangelatos’ production of the Rhesus, part of the 2015 Athens Festival and running through August 9, takes place on the archaeological site of Aristotle’s Lyceum. It’s an appropriate choice for a play billed as by “Ευρίπιδη [;]” given that the identification is conjectural. The site only opened to the public a few years ago, and consists of low foundation walls, part of a bath complex, and a well-tended park surrounding it.

Evangelatos connected her production to the site right away with a “peripatetic” portion of the performance. The audience was divided into four groups, each of which was led to a different side of the site as the chorus entered, marching like sleepwalking versions of the guards outside of parliament at Athens. As the audience was shepherded between vantage points, the chorus fell into and out of small groupings, jumping over walls, wrestling in the dust, scattering paper flowers, all while passages from the Physics and On the Interpretation of Dreams were read over the loudspeaker.

The experience was rather baffling—my modern Greek skills are barely up to the challenge of asking for directions, much less following Aristotle—but the choreography was impressive, and the Dreams especially is a good choice given the play’s recurring themes of sleep. I don’t think that the peripatetic aspect added anything from an audience perspective; the guides in charge of shepherding the audience were in need of practice, and the movement was distracting.

When the Euripides (?) portion of the performance began, it was very clear where Evangelatouswould stand on the question of whether the Rhesus took the place of the satyr play: she thoroughly embraced the humorous and nonsensical aspects of the play. The Trojan camp became a bizarre and charming combination of Neverland, Calvinball, and the Hardy Boys. Hector was kitted out in an oversized Napoleon hat and an extra-long telescope, while his soldiers were armed with buckets, mops, and wooden swords over costumes evoking a 1940’s summer camp for boys.

The choreography (Patricia Apergi) was the star of the production. The ensemble leapt, danced, fought, and climbed with a ferocious energy and athleticism, their movements reinforcing the humorous and innocent delivery of the text with pure physical comedy. The chorus provided the characters as well, individual chorus members donning or doffing costumes as necessary. Standout moments included Dolon’s scene, in which Dolon races all the way to the other end of the site in his eagerness to spy on the Greeks before Hector manages to call him back. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the actor playing Hector doubled as Athena—an good reminder that the original performance would have been a man acting as Athena acting as Aphrodite. Athena’s interactions with Paris, a Linus-like character dressed in a sailor suit and toting a butterfly net, were handled beautifully as a point of tension between the childlike/dreamlike performance and the very much adult and serious themes of war, death, and love.

In all, Evangelatos’ Rhesus was a refreshing and wonderful experience. By reframing the play as Hector’s dream, she embraced the absurd elements of the text and made the disjointed plot an asset rather than a problem.

Medea

Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.
Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

A woman in line for the National Theatre Live broadcast of Carrie Cracknell’s Medea kindly asked me if this was my first time seeing a Greek tragedy. When I told her that this was the fourth production of Medea I had seen, she laughed. “You’re a glutton for punishment, aren’t you?”

While I certainly wouldn’t call tragedy a punishment, Medea is, inevitably, an intense experience. We are trapped, watching as a woman, suddenly unmoored from her marriage and from her adopted home, tumbles over the edge of ordinary logic as she fights to regain control and to punish those who have caused her suffering. “I choose to take back my life,” she tells us. “My life.”

Helen McCrory brilliantly portrays Medea’s tight spiral into revenge. Out of time, out of options, she spends much of the play pacing like a caged tiger through the dilapidated basement that is her domain. The contrast between the dystopian grunge of Medea’s home and the bright, clean wedding hall above emphasizes her position. McCrory skillfully modulates between grief, anger, coldness, and self-deprecating humor, and Medea’s final tortured decision to kill her own children is heartbreakingly convincing.

The chorus of Corinthian women, dressed as bridesmaids for Jason’s wedding to Kreusa, lurk passively on the fringes of the stage. They offer Medea their silence, but keep their distance. The contrast between their usual tense passivity and the choral odes, distinguished by marionette-like, spasmodic dancing (choreographed by Lucy Guerin), is somewhat jarring. Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp’s music is marvelously unsettling, but slightly overshadows the already shadowy chorus.

Performances are strong across the board: Michaela Coel as the Nurse maintains a narrator-like semi-detachment throughout the play, and Martin Turner’s Kreon is a wonderfully smooth politician. The one character I have difficulty with is Jason (Danny Sapani). Sapani handles Jason’s grief over his children brilliantly, but is a tad too upright in his interactions with Medea. For a man described as “a demon, a he-devil,” Medea’s husband is remarkably calm and reasonable, lacking the caddishness that adds insult to Medea’s injury.

Ben Power’s translation is consistently strong, balancing the sheer weight of the text with a conversational modernity. Medea can use words like “lust” and “craven” when she attacks her husband, but also pithily mock him: “Just for old times’ sake, let’s pretend I don’t despise you.”

Perhaps the most surprising element of the production is the decision to cast a silent Kreusa (Clemmie Sveaas) and to show both her wedding and her death. While the sight of a joyful wedding party upstairs visually emphasizes Medea’s exclusion and isolation, showing Kreusa convulsing in the tangles of a poisoned cloak is, I believe, a misstep. A visual image of her death detracts from the wonderfully vivid messenger speech that describes it (here delivered by Toby Wharton).

Glutton for punishment? I would gladly be punished with another look at this production.