Pedro Pascal and Derek Lucci in
Old Comedy from Aristophanes' Frogs
(© Joe Dore)
Pedro Pascal and Derek Lucci in
Old Comedy from Aristophanes' Frogs
(© Joe Dore)
David Greenspan has a lot of good ideas that he's poured into Old Comedy After Aristophanes' Frogs, but David Herskovits' production -- presented by Target Margin Theater at Classic Stage Company -- is a labored effort that never really takes off.

In his updated adaptation of the classic Greek comedy, Greenspan adheres closely to the basic structure of Aristophanes' play. Dionysus (Pedro Pascal), lamenting the state of things, decides that he and his slave Xanthias (Derek Lucci) should travel to Hades to bring back a playwright that can speak to the challenges of our times. However, Greenspan occasionally leaves out crucial exposition, such as why Dionysus dresses up like Herakles (Michael Levinton) before journeying to the Underworld. Xanthias occasionally fills the audience in on missing details from the Greek original, and the characters often engage in a kind of metatheatrical commentary on the differences between Greenspan's version and that of Aristophanes.

And there are many differences. Greenspan has the chorus and figures such as Charon (Tina Shepard) deliver long, political rants that are highly critical of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. While Aristophanes' chorus similarly waxed philosophical on a perceived decline in Athenian governing ability, Greenspan's chorus goes so far as to imagine a rather grisly end for the U.S. president. References to everything from Alice in Wonderland to The Exorcist to Reverend Fred Phelps' homophobia are also injected into the story.

The most crucial change, however, comes at the end of the play as Euripides (Purva Bedi) and Aeschylus (Anthony Mark Stockard) battle it out to prove who is the better playwright. Not only does Greenspan take a detour through a few later writers including Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams, he alters the final outcome of the contest. Many of these modifications are actually quite interesting, particularly Greenspan's charge (through the character of Xanthias) that Aristophanes allowed his conservative views on theater to cloud his judgment.

Unfortunately, the production drags so much that it's difficult to appreciate Greenspan's playwriting (which also includes some witty wordplay). The uneven pacing and forced delivery of lines drains out whatever humor might have been in the play. The original music by Thomas Cabaniss is also largely ineffective. There are a couple moments where the composer seems to pay homage to Stephen Sondheim (who wrote a far better musical treatment of The Frogs), but none of the Old Comedy songs rise above serviceable, and some don't even do that.

Worse still, Lucci has two solos that he's simply vocally unable to pull off. The actor is better when not trying to sing, and delivers a rather affecting speech about the one sexual liaison that occurred between master and servant -- which was awkward for both, but paved the way for their friendly working relationship. Pascal has a cute smile and an animated presence, but always seems to be commenting upon rather than inhabiting his role. Neither Bedi nor Stockard are much good as the dueling playwrights, making that crucial scene fail miserably. The rest of the ensemble members don't make a very favorable impression either, which is just one more reason for the lackluster production.