In four hours, the Aristophanesathon never cracks the whimsy barrier | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

In four hours, the Aristophanesathon never cracks the whimsy barrier 

And it fails to capture the playwright’s nasty ancient Greek heart.

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John Taflan

By comparison to their 2014 All Our Tragic, the Hypocrites' Aristophanesathon is a wee little thing: running just over four hours where its predecessor lasted 12, featuring six performers as opposed to 14, and, most significantly, pulling together a mere 11 extant plays by a single ancient Greek—way down from AOT's 32 by three.

Still, I found the Aristophanesathon harder to sit through than All Our Tragic, even though Sean Graney (who adapted and directed both) has built two food breaks into the new show, as well as regular audience stretches and the assurance that we're allowed to visit the in-theater bar or grab a snack anytime we want. Each of the Aristophanesathon's three episodes is timed to last just 70 minutes; a seasoned audient should be able to do that standing on his or her head. I'm seasoned. I even like a good marathon. (One of my all-time-favorite theater experiences was the English Shakespeare Company's 21-hour Wars of the Roses, presented at the late, lamented International Theatre Festival of Chicago.) Yet this one felt like a slog.

Why? Lots of reasons. But one enormous one has to do with the material. All Our Tragic was a distillation of the surviving works by three great classical tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—whose story lines people know even when they don't know they know them, since they revolve around iconic events like the Trojan War and mythic figures like Oedipus, Electra, and Herakles. Graney had both name recognition and familiar tales to draw on there—really, the bedrock of Western culture. The Aristophanesathon is a different matter. As the title suggests, it's culled from what remain of Aristophanes's satires, which also happen to be all that remains of the Attic genre called Old Comedy. Anybody who's been to school is likely to know his biggest hit, Lysistrata, in which Athenian women organize a sex strike to get their men to stop making war. Most of us go woozy or completely blank, however, when it comes to the other ten. What's more, Aristophanes's plays don't yield a ready-made narrative arc, the way, say, the tragedies about the house of Atreus do. They're one-offs, unified more by their author's savage, ribald, absurd sensibility than any ongoing plot. So maintaining momentum over 250 minutes becomes a challenge. How do you get people to stay excited about returning to their seats after the dinner and snack breaks?

Graney's got two strategies. One is to tie the three episodes together by taking a handful of characters from various sources, turning them into a family, and having them recur throughout. Chief among these is Praxagora, originally the heroine of Aristophanes's Ecclesiazusæ (women disguise themselves as men, infiltrate the Athenian city council, and rearrange things). Graney's version of her appears first as a precocious 11-year-old, redistributing treasury money from the military to the poor and ending a plague of flies with the help of her mother's pet jumbo dung beetle. Next, in the strongest section of the evening, we see her as a prominent middle-aged politician, pitted against a Trump-like xenophobe who wouldn't mind seeing her dead. In the final passage, she's president of all Greece, going on expeditions to Hades and the cloud nation of the birds.

For all that, Praxagora turns out to be a poor peg to hang an epic on, in large part because Kate Carson-Groner never manages to establish her as a force to be reckoned with. Even as her life's trajectory is taking her from political prodigy to cosmos-hopping stateswoman, Carson-Groner's Praxagora feels hapless, passive, even a little tired—someone dragging herself through amazing adventures. Which (a) puts her in odd opposition to the dynamism of Sasha Smith and Aja Wiltshire as her mom and sister respectively, and (b) makes all too plain Praxagora's structural status as little more than a device for taping the show together.

Graney's other interest-building strategy will be familiar to anyone who's seen his work of the last few years, particularly his very successful forays into Gilbert and Sullivan: a heightened—even hopped-up—playfulness. A goofy cartoon aesthetic that privileges bad puns, ukuleles, audience response, and heavy ingratiation. In a way, it's only appropriate that he use it here too, since Aristophanes's plays were performed at Lenaia: festivals dedicated to Dionysus and celebrated with revels. But the sweetness of it all begins to seem disingenuous as the Aristophanesathon's modern-day political intentions kick in, until, during the final episode, you feel as if you've been interned at a bizarrely jolly reeducation camp. Aristophanes had political intentions too, and often whimsical ways of expressing them. But he was also unafraid to be a nasty motherfucker. This show never finds its nasty motherfuckerness.   v


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