By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer on Feb 20, 2012, at 2:25 AM Updated on 2/20/12 at 5:20 AM
Two very old plays – one dating back centuries, the other millennia – undergo some modernization with varying degrees of success at the hands of two local theater companies.
To show due deference to age, we’ll start with Aristophanes’ comedy “The Frogs,” which has been around since 405 B.C. The Midwestern Theater Troupe opened its production Thursday at the Nightingale Theater.
The modern part is the translation by Tulsan Amy Page of the original Greek text, one that tries to bring an edgier, more outrageous tone to this ancient story of drunken gods, dead poets, bizarre journeys and odd contests.
In that, Page’s translation more than succeeds. The humor and language gets a bit blue, and wisecracks about sexual proclivities and bodily functions abound.
But the show succeeds in other ways, as well. It tells the story of the play clearly, and stages each scene with the sort of inventiveness, energy and sly humor that is a hallmark of this company’s productions.
The Nightingale gang knows very well that theater is inherently artificial, especially when it tells stories about boat rides to Hades accompanied by a chorus of frogs singing, “Brekekekéx-koáx-koáx!” They don’t try to mask that artifice – it’s part of the charm, lending an air of childlike glee even to those productions that are (like “The Frogs”) definitely for adults only.
The story: Dionysus (John Cruncleton), the Greek god of wine and revelry, is in a pique of despair. All the decent writers of tragedies – the poets who through their art gave citizens instruction and hope as well as entertainment – are dead, and the city of Athens is suffering for it.
He decides the thing to do is travel to Hades and bring back the most recent ex-poet, Euripides (Dale Sams) to the land of the living.
This leads to a meeting with the big giant head that is Heracles (John Finnerty), a boat ride down the River Styx with the chorus of frogs, and confrontations with various monsters and unpleasant people before Dionysus finally reaches the entrance to the underworld – all the while accompanied by the complaints of Xanthias (Joseph Gomez), the servant who has to carry all of Dionysus’ belongings on the journey.
Once down below, Dionysus is forced to judge a competition for the title of “best poet in Hell,” between Euripides and Aeschylus (Craig Walter). The outcome will also decide for Dionysus which poet should be returned to life, to revitalize the living through his art.
Everything is over the top, from the vaudeville stylized mugging between Cruncleton foppish deity and Gomez’s saltier-than-the-earth sidekick, and the magisterial tone of Walter’s takedowns of his rivals, to the props – that head of Heracles, the shadow-puppet chorus of frogs, the scale that finally determines the winner in the duel of poets. But it works.
The only thing that seemed tentative was the chorus, especially when pronouncing those passages that hint at the serious reasons behind all the comedy.
“The Frogs” has performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St. Tickets are $10 at the door.
At approximately 410 years old, William Shakespeare’s “Othello” is a relative newcomer to the stage. And one of the city’s newer theater companies, Actors Company of Tulsa, is presenting this tragedy at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
The company chose this venue because it has set this tale of a Moorish general undone by a false friend and his own jealousy in Tulsa in the weeks before the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.
It’s a concept that certainly has validity. Othello, because of his race, is an inherent outsider in his community, whose position is never secure no matter how many battles he might win. His tragedy is to place his trust in the wrong person, his underling Iago, who manipulates Othello into murdering his wife Desdemona, the only faithful thing in his life.
None of this, however, is evident in the Actors Company of Tulsa’s production, which opened Thursday (we saw the performance Friday night).
Well, that is not completely true. In this production, Iago is a villain and Desdemona is murdered by Othello. The plot of the play is there, but that’s about the only thing that is there.
And that’s the real tragedy of this “Othello,” that this riches in this script are quite beyond the reach of the people presenting it.
Director Bonny Downs stages the action clumsily around a very large space, complete with ramps and moveable pieces designed for some reason – this play supposedly takes place before the riot – to look like burned corners of brick buildings.
In several scenes, the actors have their backs to the audience while speechifying. Scenes that are built on action and emotion – the murder of Desdemona, Othello’s suicide – either have the actors standing around casually or engaged in silly, illogical chases. Nothing that happens in this “Othello” appears to have been thought through, or got beyond the “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we…” phase.
This is Derek Cowan’s first time to appear in the Shakespeare play as well as his first time to take on a title role, and from the moment he opens his mouth to speak he is clearly out of his depths. Cowan has such difficulty with the language – every speech is punctuated by odd pauses and fumbled phrases – that the lines he recites give no sense to the character he is supposed to portray.
He’s not alone in this. Several of the cast give every word they say the exact same weight, the exact same emphasis, leeching any and all emotion from what they say. That’s when you’re able to hear them; some, such as Shane Smith as Lodovico and Thomas Harden as Montano, are inaudible beyond the front row of seats.
The women are the better of the lot, especially Paulette Record as Emilia, Desdemona’s maid and Iago’s wife, who truly seems to understand her character. Rebekah Liston has some good moments as Desdemona, and Mandie Rake as Bianca is very good at pouring out wine and coffee.
As Iago, Starr Hardgrove relies too much on Snidely Whiplash-style villainy in his addresses to the audience, but at least he creates a more or less consistent character, as does Mvnte July as Roderigo. They plumb not the depths of their characters, but at least they make them heard.
Actors Company of Tulsa puts a lot of time and effort into publicizing its shows – one can, for example, purchase “Othello” T-shirts, if one so desires. They might be better served by concentrating on making a good show.
“Othello” has performances at 7 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Greenwood Cultural Center, 322 N. Greenwood Ave. Tickets are $14 at the door.