While Aristophanes’ “Frogs” follows Dionysus’ voyage into the underworld, the revival ultimately should have been left buried due to poor production design and lackluster implementation of subtitles.
The play, performed in ancient Greek with English subtitles, was staged this weekend in the Minor Latham Playhouse. The Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group, an organization of graduate and undergraduate students dedicated to producing ancient plays in the original Latin or Greek, produced the show.
The plot follows the descent of Dionysus, played by Daniel Sofaer, a student in the post-baccalaureate certificate program in classics, into Hades as the god seeks to bring back the recently departed Euripides, played by Talia Varonos-Pavlopoulos, GS ’09. Dionysus is joined by his slave Xanthias, played by Pedro Tozzi CC ’20, and they find themselves embroiled in a competition between Euripides and legendary playwright Aeschylus, played by Cat Lambert, a graduate student in the department of Classics.
While in theory the subtitles help bring the play to an English audience, in practice they were the largest drawback of the production. For those unable to follow the ancient Greek dialogue as it was spoken, the subtitles were supposed to offer relief; however, this was often not the case. Audience members’ eyes would bounce back and forth between the hanging screen onto which English was projected and the actors down below.
Watching and reading did not lend well to the comedic timing of the actors, as frequently the subtitles would stray well ahead or behind the pace of the show, delivering punchlines without the actors’ actions. In a few instances, the subtitles fell far enough behind that several would be skipped through in an instant, confusing anyone trying to follow the show.
One of the only remarkable aspects of the production was the Greek performance. The Chorus, composed of Edgar Elliott, CC ’20, NYU graduate student Figen Geerts, classics graduate student Brittany Johnson, Hunter College student Lina Nania, and classics doctoral student Alice Sharpless, were absolutely excellent. With an outstanding backing band, the chorus danced and sang their way through the show.
Another moment of note: when Aeschylus and Euripides entered a battle of wits in the second act. Here the spoken Greek felt fluid and not stilted like a script being read in another language. The banter was simply delightful. The high point of this interaction was when Aeschylus grabs a lyre and starts to sing. Credit belongs to Lambert, who shines on the simple stringed instrument.
The play is unflinchingly self-aware. At times, this can lead to great humor, such as when the great Greek playwright Aeschylus is rolled on stage atop his throne—a toilet. However, this wasn’t always the case. In a scene early in the play, only a single character, Xanthias, switches to speaking English while his counterparts carry on in Greek. The intended humor didn’t land as audiences carried on trying to follow the other Greek speakers. In another instance, the chorus broke into a serious English message about the nature of American democracy, abandoning the show altogether to spread the political message to vote. Moments like these are creative, but they are also jarring and unpredictable.
The self-aware nature of the play continued into the production design. The set was low effort and props were cheap and simple. While this was intended to give an effect of camp to the humor, it felt lazy. The program of the production boasts that the original rendition was so well-received that it was restaged. This initial restaging did not likely depend upon the overly large and duct-tape staff that Dionysus wields for a punchline.