‘Clouds The Musical’ proves wispy copy of Aristophanes’ original

“Clouds The Musical,” the third event in the theater department’s lecture series on comedy, examined how humor and parody have a universality which unites modern-day audiences with those of fifth-century B.C. Athens. “Clouds” was presented on the MainStage of the Adams Memorial Theatre on Feb. 22. The play was produced by the Aquila Theatre Company, currently resident at NYU’s Center for Ancient Studies, written by Peter Meineck and adapted from Aristophanes’ “Clouds.”

The Aquila Theatre Company was founded in 1991 by Peter Meineck, a scholar and translator of Greek drama. The company is widely hailed as one of the foremost contemporary producers of classical theatre, usually focusing on the word of Aristophanes, Sophocles, Homer and Shakespeare. The company received the prestigious Prize for Dramatic Excellence from the Greek government. Their production of “Clouds” has been featured in workshops at NYU over the last two months and is headed toward a spring opening off-Broadway.

The play was written and revised by Aristophanes between 423 and 417 B.C. and was shortly thereafter performed twice at the Dionysia Festival in Athens, where it received the third prize. Aristophanes’ text is self-conscious of the fact that it is competing for a prize and that it has been revised from a previous production, but Meineck’s adaptation has successfully removed these sorts of references to its ancient Greek context.

The story of Aristophanes’ play follows a poor farmer named Strepsiades (which loosely translates as “Twister,” as in one who twists the truth) whose son Pheidippides has driven him into debt through his obsession with buying and racing horses. Determined to weasel his way out of paying his debts, Strepsiades enrolls in the Pondertorium, a center of learning run by a fictionalized version of Socrates, Aristophanes’ contemporary. Strepsiades is introduced to the deities of the new order, the Clouds, which are played by the chorus. He attempts to learn to argue the “Inferior Argument,” which will allow him to win though representing the weaker side, but he proves incapable of learning. He proceeds to enroll his son in the school, but with dangerous consequences. With Pheidippides’ new learning, the social order is turned upside down and Pheidippides begins to criticize and beat his father. Taking matters into his own hands, Strepsiades attempts to destroy the Pondertorium.

The renovated musical version places the play in a vaguely working-class British context, bearing some strange resemblance to the setting of “The Full Monty.” Three British actors formed the ensemble, playing the roles of Wriggly (Strepsiades’ character), Socrates and Phillip (Pheidippides), as well as students of the Pondertorium, creditors and the embodiments of “Right Logic” and “Wrong Logic.” An ethereal voice-over, projected through microphones, represents the voice of the Clouds. In the Aquila version, Phillip squanders Wriggly’s money on car racing, and Socrates is more a scientist than a philosopher.

The music of the production proved disappointing. For each song, the characters used hand-held microphones, evoking a karaoke bar style, and danced with simple, energetic and generally ridiculous choreography. The music was pre-recorded and did not add dynamics to the arc of the show, but rather remained in the same tone and at the same energy level throughout. Pounding synthesized beats and blinking lights provided distraction, but the songs did not generally advance the plot or deepen the characters to a great extent.

Furthermore, the show had no songs between the musical first half and the final number. The music was conspicuously absent, although perhaps not missed. The three actors had decent voices, but it was apparent that none were primarily singers.

The script was loosely adapted from Meineck’s 1990 translation of “Clouds.” In the process of making the script accessible to contemporary American audiences, a multitude of references to Greek and Athenian culture – especially to a number of specific Athenians whom Aristophanes ridicules – were removed. A downfall of this adaptation is that these specific references were generally not replaced with the same analogous contemporary references. Instead, this type of humor was broadened, allowing it to be understood, but disabling the possibility for a dynamic meeting of high and low humor which Aristophanes so aptly combined.

The low humor in this version was retained from the original in Greek through references to sex, homosexuality and flatulence. These types of jokes accurately represent the Greek heritage of vulgar humor, which has found its legacy in the work of Shakespeare and in modern incarnations like Monty Python. However, these jokes often faltered by being drawn out for general shock value. Meineck and director Robert Richmond created an impressive and interesting verbal style for the characters, often drawing on the style of Abbot and Costello and vaudeville routines. Many dialogue sections, such as those between Socrates and Wriggly, crackled with energy and found laughs through their sheer exuberance if not through payoffs in punch lines.

Structurally, the play moved along quite well from scene to scene, driven by the energy of the cast and the pace of the musical sections. However, the plot was diverted by a new ending devised for this production. After Wriggly declares his intention to burn down the Pondertorium, the final scene depicts not this, but the trial of the real Socrates. Meineck draws the inference that the defacing of Socrates reputation through Aristophanes play had a part in his eventual conviction and his suicide. This show ended with a song based around the lyric “don’t drink the hemlock.” This misdirection of the plot made the ending feel unsatisfactory and tagged onto the play instead of becoming an organic part of the whole.

As Wriggly, actor Anthony Cochrane combined the character’s base nature and high energy with skill, commanding attention in all of his foolish blundering. Cochrane showed virtuosity in transforming into the upstanding “Right Logic,” whose speech on the great tradition of young men in athletics earned laughs with its homosexual undertones taken directly from Aristophanes’ original. Cochrane also composed the karaoke-style music for the production.

Lisa Carter’s Socrates was a sort of New Age scientist, declaring that God no longer exists and has been replaced by “Quasar.” The character represented a sort of authority, even while it served as a symbol of science as a subversive element in our society, undermining traditional belief structures and sometimes leaving little to hold onto in their place. Carter played Socrates and the “Wrong Logic” character – a leather-bra wearing advocate of sexual freedom – well, but began to fall flat when she transformed into a role as a couple of creditors later in the show.

The production requires quick transformations from character to character, suggested visually by adding and removing costume pieces, but the actors needed to find ways to particularize these numerous characters with more careful acting.

As the car-obsessed Phillip, Robert Richmond’s infantile attitude and speech defect – epitomized by one line, “You want me to wearn ‘Wong Wogic?” – were played up for some great laughs. His transformation into a stuffy graduate of the Pondertorium involv
ed his change into a black sweater and scarf, mocking the pretensiousness of the Ivy League set. Richmond also directed this production.

“Clouds The Musical” is a risky attempt to adapt Aristophanes’ work. Though the play has not yet lived up to its potential as a dynamic synthesis of Aristophanic humor, it does offer an interesting glimpse into the history of many of our traditions of humor and their precedent twenty five hundred years ago in Greece.