Raven Theatre Company
Well, you can’t fault this show for its dry humor, its refusal to make waves, or any lack of buoyancy, let alone chlorine. Written in 1974 for the Yale Rep and performed in that school’s Olympic-size swimming pool (Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver were in the original swimming chorus), Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs is as amphibian as its title: his “semi-aquatic” musical effectively splits itself between land and water. The source of the musical, Aristophanes’ most literary comedy, The Frogs, a prizewinner in the Dionysian festival of 405 BC, was a no-holds-barred defense of Aeschylus’s supposedly virile theater against what grumpy Aristophanes saw as Euripides’ effete decadence. Nearly two and a half millenia later that controversy has cooled off enormously (except in certain classics circles). Burt Shevelove’s updating doesn’t strike fire as a debate on the merits of the former’s poetry versus the latter’s polemics. Or as deathless entertainment (this Frogs is more collegiate humor than Aristophanic excess and the swimming pool gimmick wears thin very fast). It is, however, a great 90-minute excuse for eight vintage samples of Sondheim’s supple lyrics and, here surprisingly melodic, music.
In an unlikely twist, Shevelove has substituted Shakespeare for Aeschylus and George Bernard Shaw for Euripides, based on the real Shaw’s claim to be Shakespeare’s rival. But otherwise, the story cleaves mightily to the original. The demigod Dionysos, patron of drama as well as inventor of wine, and his Sancho Panza-like servant Xanthias travel to hell to try to restore to life the one dramatist Dionysos believes will cure contemporary theater of triviality: G.B. Shaw. Along the way Dionysos assumes the accommodating Herakles’ identity (he needs the lion skin and club for clout); the switch yields the usual mistaken identity complications (Dionysos must atone for Herakles’ sexual escapades and brave Pluto’s wrath for the slaughter of three-headed Cerberus). Dionysos has run-ins with the taunting, complacent, synchronized-swimming frogs, a “revel” of worshipping Dionysians (true believers who “always went to the theater and never came late”), and several of the livelier dead–Charisma and Virilla–who naturally no longer need to worry about safe sex.
Pluto won’t release Shaw unless “Herakles” holds a contest to see who’s the better playwright–Shaw or the local favorite, Shakespeare. Each playwright is perched on a barge, propelled across the pool by mermen. In a sort of ancient Jeopardy each rattles off excerpts from his works in chosen categories (women, man, love, life, and death). Fulminating from Man and Superman and spewing his usual mean-spirited put-downs of Shakespeare, Shaw mocks the Bard’s supposed jog-trot blank verse, “rhetorical fustian,” “pretentious platitudes,” and “purple patches on borrowed rags,” then reads an excerpt from Saint Joan that’s as cliche-ridden as anything he accused Will of.
Spewing forth his own Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare meets palpable hit with hit and, in a burlesque of the prize song in Die Meistersinger, wins his freedom with a Debussy-like version of the dirge from Cymbeline. Deemed “no poet” by his ex-groupie Dionysos, GBS rails against his infernal bad taste, but Will is restored to the world to “write plays for our time.” (He’s certainly taking his time–unless . . . Well, David Mamet did start writing around 1974.)
Shevelove’s dialogue sags with sophomoric groaners that Aristophanes himself would have relished (“I’m off to clean the Augean stable.”–“No shit.” Or, from the keeper of the keys of hell when he falls in the pool: “I wet myself”). But if the script succumbs, the score fairly soars. The ebullient invocation or prologos (evocative of much Sondheim to come) merrily instructs the audience not to cough, swim, applaud (the echo is too great), strip, or smoke grass.
Sondheim’s brightly goggled, syncopated croakers paddle their way through a rich round that combines the composer’s own trademark rhythms with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and Gershwin’s “Who Cares.” Other gems are a sambalike “Evoe!” sung in a bacchanalian debauch, the eerie, minor-key “It’s Only a Play” (a perfect ironic distillation of the Sondheim credo of art’s power over life) performed in Roman tragedy masks, and a campy “Invocation to the Muses,” in which an Esther Williams-style nymph rises from the pool in picturesque tableaux. Sondheim fans will drink it up.
Pegasus Players, who always strike gold with Sondheim (Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures), do it again with this lesser effort, only the second staging of the show, performed here at Truman College’s pool. Framed by set designer Russ Borski’s gigantic smoking Pluto mask and billowing skydrop, Victoria Bussert’s staging is briskly competent, even when reduced by the limited playing area (the pool’s far deck and some space on each end) to ceremonial processions and some careful slapstick.
Though the cast badly needs a comic, Brian McLaughlin gives Dionysos sufficient spunk and Dan Shea comes close enough to the traditional randy, cowardly servant of the Old Comedy as Xanthias. Brian-Mark Conover makes no attempt to imitate Shaw’s accent but he does convey his didactic, self-righteous bellicosity. The most professional work is Don Mayo’s stentorian Shakespeare; Mayo’s basso profundo is the best one this side of James Earl Jones.
The evening’s splash hit is easily the 20-odd cast of hardworking frogs, Dionysian revelers, and spirits of the dead. Whether beaming waterproof flashlights in near-perfect synchronization, floating candles across the pool, or enunciating with water in their mouths (and despite the pool’s terrible acoustics), they’re real troupers worthy of their baptism. Music director Jeffrey Lewis, conducting from the low diving platform in tux and trunks, lifts them to Sondheim sophistication, and Mary Jo Dondlinger lights them more subtly than you’d ever expect to see in a swimming pool.
Some consumer advice: if you sit on the lower level, you’ll have to take off your shoes and socks. Dress lightly; the pool’s humidity can really get to you.
In another water-obsessed play, Leo Fitzpatrick’s Seaviews, the father asks, “Are we going to get to the bottom of this long-winded tale or not?”
It’s a question the audience will ponder even more. Fitzpatrick’s lifeless, cliche-barnacled bore takes more than two hours to describe to death the Kavanaghs, a suburban family obsessed with the sea. Rejected by Annapolis for lacking the right connections, the father refuses to give up his sailor fixation. His porch resembles a ship’s prow. He’s taught his sons to dream of running off to macho adventures on the rolling ocean. And he needs his fantasy like a fix. After the elder son tells him he won’t go back to the Merchant Marines, dad flies into a snit, calls him a coward, and, to compensate, lifts weights until his heart gives out. (Mindlessly confusing obsession with idealism, Seaviews hails this disturbed semisuicidal loser as some kind of uncompromising hero.)
The sons, one of whom has actually been to sea and knows its monotony, eventually see that Dad’s dream is only an adolescent escape from responsibility. The younger son, a disillusioned English professor, almost runs off to prove Dad was right, but his pregnant wife wisely tells him–in what must be the play’s 4,000th bromide–that “inside is where we find our dreams.” If only she’d said that at 8:15 . . .
Ostensibly a new work, Seaviews plays like a dreary retread of Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, another long-winded, Conrad-crazed play that fairly talks you to death as it contrasts land and sea. Despite some insider details from the playwright’s own sea experience, the conflict between adventure and security remains sodden with rhetorical overkill. Spouting interminable, gratuitous anecdotes, the self-conscious, sandwich-board characters ceaselessly tell us what to think of them, humorlessly analyze every move they make (or don’t make), and repeat themselves like the Ancient Mariner on speed. It’s as if Fitzpatrick perversely decided that any spontaneity, any breath of fresh air, would kill off this O’Neill clone–or reveal it as the stuffed script it is.
Michael Menendian’s Raven Theatre staging could easily–and hilariously–have parodied this confessional crap. Menendian treats it with deadly seriousness. His cast give lines that should have died before a first reading a heartiness, fury, and conviction as depressing as the overwritten dialogue. Wantland Sandel plays the blowhard father as if auditioning for a net, John Alcott’s academic son is earnest to no avail, and, as the family’s only sailor, Richard Schrot reduces his character to a nonstop public service announcement. Because of the good work Lucina Paquet and JoAnn Montemurro have given Raven audiences, their presence here amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The only completely successful element is John Munson’s richly detailed green-and-brown nautical set, complete with a fishing net sprawling across the ceiling. It has a lot more to say than anyone inside it.