Aristophanes' The Women's Festival (Thesmophoriazusae 2001): A Musical Comedy
Hunter College Department of Theatre; Laura Drake, adaptor and director. Loewe Theatre, Hunter College, New York NY. November 5-14, 2001.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Scharffenberger

A ritual commemoration of Demeter's search for her lost daughter Persephone, the Athenian Thesmophoria festival seems to have provided an opportunity for the women of Athens to exercise freedoms of association and expression that were off-limits to them in daily life. The festival was, then, something of a "free zone," and Aristophanes appears to have conceived of his Thesmophoriazusae (Women at the Thesmophoria) in an analogous spirit of carnivalesque freedom. In its turn, Laura Drake's recent adaptation of the comedy strove to capture the Aristophanic spirit of fun and freedom for contemporary New York City audiences. Although Drake began work on her bright, boisterous, and highly entertaining adaptation of Thesmophoriazusae before the September 11th terrorist attacks on the city, the play took on special meaning for me in the light of the tragedy. It was as if she had managed to import a bit of badly needed summer into our mournful autumn, and her production has prompted me to wonder whether Aristophanes' original production at the Greater Dionysia in March-April 411 BCE - a time of war and political upheaval in Athens - would have had a similar reassuring, "brightening" effect for its audience sitting on the southern slope of the Acropolis.

Thesmophoriazusae dramatizes a confrontation between the tragedian Euripides and the women of Athens, who are outraged at the playwright's representations of his female characters. Aristophanes, of course, could count on his audience's intimate acquaintance with the tragedian and his plays, but no modern director can. To "translate" the comedy's interest in poetry and theater, Drake peppered her script, which was loosely based on Dudley Fitts's 1959 translation, with references to contemporary dramatists like Wendy Wasserstein and David Mamet, and staged the parodies of Euripides' Helen and Andromeda as send-ups of scenes from film and opera. The production opened with a silent, strobe-lit "pre-play" enactment of the sparagmos of Pentheus in Bacchae, which cleverly prefigured the comedy's intersecting concerns with theater, ritual, and transgression. These inventive choices exemplify the free-handed way in which she contemporized Aristophanes' drama. Nonetheless, despite - and also because of - her experimental approach, Drake succeeded in capturing the pure fun of Aristophanic comedy, and her freewheeling adaptation seemed paradoxically true to its ancient source.

The stage for this production was literally set by its colorful backdrop, brought straight out of a happy fantasy world by set designer Beowulf Borritt. Bright, obviously fake "astroturf" and oversized plastic daisies covered the stage and "orchestra," and a small party-tent decked with brightly colored flags stood in for the skene. The costumes, especially of women speakers and members of the chorus, were equally festive: an array of oranges, yellows, and reds to contrast with vivid green of the "grass." The over-all look of the production recalled the Caribbean and Indian festivals that are regularly held in New York; it was also a healthy reminder of the importance of spectacle in Athenian Old Comedy, with its "larger than life" dimensions.

Living up to its billing as "a musical comedy," the production made the performance of the chorus its focal element. The appealing adaptations of Thesmophoriazusae's choral songs, which drew upon contemporary musical genres from gospel to pop to rap, showcased Drake's flair for bringing ancient material into the modern moment; the final choral ode to Athena, for example, featured as its refrain, "Hear us, mighty Pallas,/ Hear us and be near us," whereas the parabasis was fashioned as a sharp, catchy rap that pointedly addressed issues of concern today for women world-wide, from domestic violence to female infanticide. The singing of the chorus was strong and on-key, and the dancing, which also drew upon contemporary genres from ballet to hip-hop, was crisp and energetic. Special credit is due to the choral director Tanyayette C. Willoughby and choreographer Anthony Scott Craney, who made a striking appearance as Dionysus himself as "dance master" for the choral ode between the parodies of Helen and Andromeda. A large part of the production's success was due to the fact that the actors (especially the members of the chorus) were clearly having the times of their lives on stage, and their high-spiritedness was infectious. Drake let the actors playing the women import a potpourri of languages (Spanish, Japanese, Haitian Creole, and more) into the script, as they rivaled each other for the privilege of holding "the speaker's corsage" and venting their outrage against Euripides. Misha Shulman played Euripides as a nerdy but nice intellectual; Robert Allan's Mnesilochos seemed to have a little Tony Curtis in him; Nercido Mota Jr., Mitchell Zorba, Noah Damer, and German Grinshpun, as (respectively) Agathon, Kleisthenes, and Kleisthenes' two friends, mined contemporary stereotypes of drag-queen divas to great comic effect. Dennis Tiede, dressed in a dark blue chiton and wearing the mirror sunglasses that are part of the contemporary iconography of heavy-handed law enforcement, did a fine job recreating the silent miming of Harpo Marx in his portrayal of the hapless Policeman, upon whom Euripides, Mnesilochos, and the women gang up in the comedy's final scenes once they resolve their differences. Much credit is due to Drake here for her ingenious treatment of the Policeman, whose original incarnation (as a Scythian archer) is the construct of ethnic prejudice that was acceptable in fifth-century Athens but is now universally condemned and, moreover, completely out-of-step with the inclusive, happy feel of her production.

Dr Elizabeth Scharffenberger
Columbia University