Edmund Gwenn-s famous quip -Dying is easy, comedy is difficult- seems particularly apt this year when discussing the world-s first great comedy writer, Aristophanes. These days, the classic tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are still staged with some regularity-and often these modern productions are quite good: Fiona Shaw-s stunning Medea or South Coast Rep-s recent Antigone, to name just two.
But commercial productions of Aristophanes- comedies are seen less frequently-and first rate productions are rarer still. Some of this may be due to the fact that Gwenn was right, comedy perhaps is more difficult than tragedy; but much of it because Aristophanes- humor is more intellectual than sentimental, and his work more satire than sit-com. Interestingly, his plays held the popular cultural currency of television shows back in Ancient Greece, but what was topical 2,500 years ago can seem like greek to audiences today.
Nonetheless, this year brings a number of notable Aristophanes revivals. Many of these, naturally, will take place in Greece, where alongside the Summer Olympics, this year-s Athens Festival is presenting three out of his eleven existing plays.
But probably the most prominent Aristophanes revival this summer is here in America. Lincoln Center Festival is mounting a version of Aristophanes- Frogs, set to music by Steven Sondheim and -freely adapted- by Nathan Lane.
Frogs is often called Aristophanes- masterpiece as it centers on a glittering war of words between Euripides and Aeschylus-a sort of 5th century B.C. version of celebrity deathmatch.
This Broadway version, called The Frogs, with Lane himself playing Dionysus-the God of Theater-seemed like a fun idea. It must be said that parts are enjoyable, but the show has been inflated to two-and-a-half hours, thanks to a generous amount of Catskills-era jokes, some Cirque-du-Soleil style acrobatics, and a good deal of antiwar agitprop. Sadly this last element is so ham-fisted that the audience is never allowed to draw its own parallels between Aristophanes- war-torn Athens and today.
The biggest problem though is that the competition between Euripides and Aeschylus has been updated and now features a showdown between George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare. This has none of the bite of Aristophanes- original scene, and it merely devolves into a long quote fest that seems like it should be sponsored by Bartlett-s.
When Aristophanes wrote Frogs, the competition between Euripides and Aeschylus was appropriate, as their works were written in the vernacular of the times. If really looking for poets who could speak about the current war and inspire today-s populace, perhaps Lane-s Dionysus should not be trying to to revive the Bard, but instead be looking for the next Bob Dylan or Tom Lehrer.
Right now, Los Angeles is also home to a contemporary take on greek comedy-a staging of Aristophanes- Lysistrata. This is another antiwar work, one that depicts the women of Athens going on a sex strike to force their husbands into ending a war with Sparta.
James Carey-s production uses modern dress and American slang to update the play-but rather than stress the politics of war, Carey stresses the politics of sex. Aristophanes writing was certainly ribald, but this staging goes beyond bawdy into crass. Just about every possible word for male genitalia is uttered, and yes, as the strike lingers on, the men emerge on-stage with pink balloons sticking out of their shorts.
The entire production feels limp due to this sophomoric style: the women of athens are played as shallow sorority girls and the male soldiers, little more than horny frat boys. All that-s missing are Greek letters written across their chests.
The show ends with the line -make love, not war.- A fair translation that indicates the casual, contemporary feel this production aims for. But sadly, with both this Lysistrata and Lane-s Frogs, in trying to make Aristophanes seem timely, the shows- creators forget what makes his work so timeless. The result is that they-ve made schtick, not comedy.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.