September 19 - December, 1995
September 28 - December, 1995
Ancient Comic Opera Company
Artistic Director, Translator, Lyricist: Greg Robic
Musical Director: Michael McKay
Poor Alex Theatre, 296 Brunswick, Toronto, Ontario
Phone: (416) 539-8350 Fax: (416) 539-0629
Reviewed by C.W. Marshall
Department of Classics
Many details commend these productions, but most important is that the Ancient Comic Opera Company knows how to make its audience laugh. Robic's productions are strong, but that strength is built on a single pillar: most of the laughs come from the music in these shows; to get the laughs, many of Aristophanes' jokes are lost. Purists might object to the inclusion of Aristophanes' name in the billing, or to the regular deviation from his plot and words. Nevertheless, even purists will be entertained. Robic's scripts are built around the songs, with the result that these plays are, above all, musicals. For classicists, this can be instructive, because Robic aggressively chases laughs in places that few modern productions of Aristophanes find them.
McKay's musical direction is exceptional. His piano is accompanied by a violin, a cello, and half a dozen very strong voices in the cast (Ann Bisch as a student and a cloud, and as Myrrhine in Lysistrata, is particularly memorable). The lyrics for the songs are set to well-known 'classics', most often drawn from Gilbert & Sullivan, though Wagner and Mozart are also plundered for familiar melodies. Socrates' singing boasts that he is 'embellishing the truth, / and corrupting all the youth.' Verdi's La Battaglia di Legnano underpins the chorus of students explaining 'Our duty pedagogic / is to learn Socratic logic.' Easily the best musical number in Clouds is the parabasis, in which Robic complains about the large number of mega-musicals running in Toronto these days (the latest to open is Sunset Boulevard). The poignant lyrics address the crisis in Toronto theatre, and their argument is made more persuasive as they are set to 'Ya Got Trouble' from The Music Man. As the fervour increases, strains of Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus' are introduced, so that there can be no doubt that this is the correct perspective on the trouble at hand.
What is lost amongst the glorious musical mayhem is Aristophanes' text. The unsung jokes are entertaining, and but they are heavily reformed from any Aristophanic originals. Hermes is invoked as 'patron god of yokel farmers seeking revenge on wicked Sophists'. Strepsiades debates the appropriate case of the subjective complement with a student behind the Phrontesterium door. 'You can stop swearing by Zeus, you know... he doesn't exist' is met with a broad Newfoundland accent invoking 'Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!' Aristophanes' wordplay concerning the gender of nouns is excised wholesale, and an adaptation of the vowel- formation scene in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme of Moliere is substituted instead. For non-musical performance, Leo Wigglesworth's Pheidippides deserves particular mention. His impersonations of Johnny Depp (through poses and hairstyle) segue into Jim Carrey's 'all rrrrightey then', or Keanu Reeves' 'excellent', or into the tortured slow pacing of William Shatner deliberating. This freestyle romp through well-known Canadian actors is supplemented by an allusion to Alex Trebeck, as the cast assume positions for a parody of the television game show Jeopardy, in which every response is 'Caesar'.
Different examples lead to the same conclusions about Lysistrata, which is performed as a separate show, at midnight on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The promise of 'sexual content' in the advertising is an effective draw, and there are some (predictable) sexual-slapstick visual gags. Kinesias is rechristened Shaft, which is about as subtle as his address to his phallus: 'O! that this too too solid flesh would melt.' Kalonike evokes Edith Bunker, Lampito a German gymnast. 'The battle of Souvlaki-grad' is placed in a list with Thermopylae. Lysistrata proclaims that the women of Greece are in trouble; but as the relevant chords from The Music Man, used so effectively in Clouds, are sounded on the piano, she firmly tells the orchestra, 'Not that kind of trouble!' Conflation of two melodies works here as well: Wagner is blended with the protest-anthem sounds of 'We're Not Gonna Take It', which in turn is given a sexual meaning.
The central musical number is an opera medley using Mozart, Wagner, and Rossini. The pieces are chosen because they are also mined for parody in The Rabbit of Seville and What's Opera, Doc? (Warner Bros. cartoons from 1950 and 1957 respectively). The animated scripts are foregrounded, however, as Robic's programme notes confirm. This number is less than successful as a result: a parody of a parody lacks the spark of original juxtaposition.
Robic is writing for a very select audience: university educated, and sharing a very particular set of cultural references. Not all of the audience are caught in his net. In fact, many are let go. In Clouds, Socrates closes the first half with a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'I am the very model', which contains the following:
The Greek and Latin nouns I do decline and verbs I conjugate. On person number mood and voice and tense I could expostulate. There's apposition, opposition, syllables that make position. Metrical irregularities arouse my deep suspicion.
There's allegory, simile, hyperbole, asyndeton, Antithesis, apostrophe, anastrophe, hyperbaton, Tmesis, oxymoron, henendiates, polyptaton, analogy, litotes, pleonasm, polysyndeton.
No one can deny this is clever, nor that it is written for only part of the audience. This song is used in the production to underline the joys of the Aristophanic pnigos, and the extra-fast reprise is impressive (the same technique is used with a Mikado song in Lysistrata). Robic's productions grab the audience at the outset with the claims for cultural literacy. Clouds begins with an off-stage chorus in splendid harmony. Lysistrata opens with an awkward ballet in the overture, where the sexual humour of the play is established clearly, under the guise of high culture.
The 106-seat theatre sported a bare stage, with a faux-Greek background. Lighting cues are few, costumes are an unimpressive blend, from Greek robes for Socrates and the sophists to overalls for Strepsiades. It would not have taken much to work these up, but Robic's concern is not with these aspects of production, or even with the acting. He is focused solely on the music, and many of the principles of translation employed are indeed very clever. Robic promises new plays based on Aristophanes in the future: versions of Assemblywomen and Frogs are already written. They will no doubt be produced with the same principles in mind. It may not be Aristophanes, but it sure will be fun.
C. W. Marshall
(C.W. Marshall is co-directing a production of Euripides' Medea at Trent University.)