Sunday, December 6, 2009

Is it Modern - Peace

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we went to see “Peace” by Aristophanes. I’d seen an ancient Greek tragedy done before “Oedipus Rex” but never an ancient Greek comedy. I knew a little from some quick research, that Aristophanes stuff was on the bawdy side and in your face kinda comedy. And truthfully my taste in comedy tends more toward wordplay and irony, not so much with the fart jokes.

I also had the suspicion that the production was going to be on the modern side of things. Now, I’m no fan of modern art, and performance art always leaves me cold. I’m even iffy about updating Shakespeare plays without a good reason to do so. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but most of the time I just end up feeling like it was done to shake up the visuals and not really to make the play more acceptable to a modern audience.

When we arrived at the theater things became more suspicious. The seating was arranged like an ancient Greek or Roman theater, facing toward the entrance of the Getty Villa. So you had a kind of makeshift stage in front. But what disturbed me was the fact that a mound of trash was in the middle of the theater and a set of silver yoga balls piled against the door of the Getty. Suddenly I had visions of a Christmas episode of “South Park” where minimalist composer Philip Glass worked on the Christmas pageant. Would this be nothing but people dressed in black sweaters spouting verse and doing interpretive dance?

All this changed when a man dressed as a Mexican mariachi walked out with a blue foam finger on his arm that was emblazoned with the Dodger’s logo on it. He began to speak in a very serious tone of voice about how we all must keep our cell phones off, and how we could laugh but must keep the noise level down for the neighbors. His little reminders dropped more and more humor, but delivered as deadpan as possible. But in the end the audience chuckles seemed to pass on down to him and he cracked a little. The absurd combination was the perfect intro to what was to be a very interesting show.

The approach was modernized, and yet completely fantasy at the same time. The basic plot of “Peace” goes something like this. An Athenian farmer is sick of war, so he jumps onto his dung beetle and flies up to heaven to confront the Gods. When he gets there he finds the Gods have all left except for Hermes. Hermes tells the farmer that the God of War is cooking up more trouble for mankind. Not only that but the evil god has locked away peace in a cave and blockaded it with boulders. The farmer goes the cave, gets some help from other Greeks and together they release Peace from her prison. Some of the Greeks who stand to profit by war voice their opposition, but they are silenced. The whole thing ends with Peace bringing joy to Greece, a marriage ceremony and a celebration.

What’s interesting are the bits of humor that this production kept in. The dung beetle for instance. In the original version the farmer needs to feed the poor beast, so he has his slaves collect dung and turn it into cakes. Pretty much the same thing happens here, except fudge-cicles are involved, and the dung beetle is shaped like a Volkswagen bug and is referred to as a hybrid because it runs on methane. Ancient Greek comedies often had characters wandering around with huge phalluses strapped to them and used for comedic purposes. We got the same thing here, with balloon phalluses being used and popped. This lead to a rowdy musical number about masturbation: with accompaniment provided by a string trio.

Then there was the exclusively modern stuff like the interview with Aristophanes on a radio show, or the annoyed neighbor coming down from the audience with her little dog in her purse, or the entire Marx brothers routine involving a statue of the Goddess of Peace, pulled right from the interior of the Getty (don’t worry, it was only a foam recreation).

The show was funny, rude, and of course carried a message about the trouble of getting peace delivered to our world. There was nothing subtle about the message, but from what I’ve read about Aristophanes, he never did anything subtle at all. In the end, I had a very good time, not all the humor landed (lots of low humor here folks) but things moved quickly enough that if one set up didn’t work, chances are the next one would. It was a fun 90 minutes of entertainment at a beautiful location. I’ve never been to the Getty Villa at night and with all the smoke in the air because of the recent fires, the red moon actually added to the surreal feel of the show.

In a way all the mad cap antics and mixing of styles worked fine for the play. Its basic plot is nothing but a fairy tale in the first place. So once you accept that a farmer can fly a dung beetle up to heaven, you don’t really mind that he’s a pot farmer, or that his son is obsessed with Michael Jackson, or that the God of War is annoyed that the “White Devils” are being lead by “a skinny black guy”. For the most part the humor reminded me of “South Park” – no holds barred, offensive to everyone and still really damn funny.

Most writers will tell you that comedy is harder than drama. And I think staging a Greek comedy in its pure form must be more difficult than staging something like “Oedipus Rex”. Some form of adaptation must be made, because most viewers aren’t going to know their Cleon from their Pericles. But throw in humor about Rush Limbaugh or Barak Obama, and you’ll get chuckles out of most people.

Ever see a Greek comedy or tragedy? Was it modernized? Was it still effective either way? When tackling a historical figure or event, how much modernization should the writer allow him or herself?

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