WITH "KOAX-KOAX-KOAX" and a splash, the Fogg Museum sets out to prove the necessity of art with humor and grace. Presented by the Fine Arts Students Association, the Stephen Sondheim-Burt Sheevelove version of Aristophanes. The Frogs may be the museum's finest piece currently on display, as a small group of actors offer up modern morals and poetry in this classic comedy.
The Frogs opens on Dionysus and her servant, Xanthias, planning to depart for Hades. Depressed by an apathetic world, in Aristophanes' original they wish to bring back the playwright Euripides to wake the world with witty satire. Once in the underworld Dionysus realizes that the true artist. Aeschylus, can contribute much more passion and poetry than the humorist and decides that he will save the world by returning this writer to life. The modernized version replaces Euripides with George Bernard Shaw, and Aeschylus with William Shakespeare. But Sheevelove sticks closely to the rest of Aristophanes' script; even the scatological jokes and invocations to the muses live in the actors' exclamations. As in the original, the responsibility of poets and the need for art are stressed, but never do these morals clash with the patchwork comedy that mingles ancient Greeks with modern Irishmen and spans centuries of theater.
With a relatively small cast, in which several chorus members also play minor roles, director John Ashworth has managed to fuse ancient with modern. His two leads, Dionysus (Dede Schmeiner) and Nanthias (David de Berker) as the god and her servant, each display distinctive brands of comedy. Schmeiner makes her Dionysus an impish figure, a lusty Peter Pan, while her slave opts for a broader comic style, occasionally reminiscent of the Three Stooges. These two mug and grin at each other and, since the Fogg's courtyard leaves both stage and seating level, often draw the audience in on their jokes and jibes. At times their humor is more visual than verbal. Both exhibit the gestures of competent mines, and Mary Fedor's choreography proves their agile, almost acrobatic, skill as well. Nor does the rest of the cast father; from the acting remain continently strong from the major roles through the chorus.
THE TWELVE MEMBER CHORUS on The Frogy provides not only the classical function of explaining or commenting on the drama, but the entertainment value of a modern musical chorus. These twelve alternate as frogs, singing "koax-brek-kek-kek" in the river Styx, and as Dionysians, singing hymns. Sondheim's simple four-part melodies combine new lyrics with quotations from Aristophanes' original to provide enjoyable interludes. The singing, surprisingly strong for a student production, reverberates in the courtyard. The slight echo in the Fogg occasionally interferes with actor's speeches all other times, but during the musical numbers this mild echo swells the sound of the small group to a cathedral-like ring.
When not singing the chorus still offers lively human scenery which adds excitement to several speeches, most notably that of Hierophantes, who shows up briefly as commentator on the action. Acacia Blythe as Hierophantes must recite the most baldly moralistic speech of the play, a condemnation of the apathetic "frogs" who are content to "let well enough alone." Yet her lyrical voice cases this speech onto the audience as the chorus slowly dances and pantomines around her. At other times the frog-chorus is strictly comic, as when the twelve hop around, individualized by bits of clothing as diverse as sun visors and knitted mufflers.
The playful costumes by Deborah-Lee Moisan highlight the anachronisms of The Frogs, stressing the play's timelessness. Traditional tunics mingle with neon leotards. Shaw appears in a sombre suit, while Will Shakespeare's costume is strictly Elizabethean. Herakles, a vain jock, wears his fabled lion skin with Nikes. These mixed colors and periods set against the bare Fogg courtyard, decorated only with several large moveable blocks, stand out vibrantly, the effect innovative and welcome in an era of elaborate staging. The multilevel courtyard constitutes a director's dream: both the second floor pillared balcony and the third story windows come into play. Slaves discuss their masters out of reach of the actors in the central courtyard, and an angry Aeakos (David Silverman) bellows out of an upper window.
The play is performed without an intermission, which translates to almost two hours on the Fogg's hard folding chaos. However, The Frogs moves so quickly, offering such an unpretentious rendering of classical drama that it ends leaving--the audience almost disappointed to leave, but at least momentarily freed from the mud.