by NATHANIEL NELSON
This week, the Vivian Fusillo Theatre at Winona State University (WSU) will be home to a wildly idiosyncratic production. From Wednesday through Saturday, the college’s theater and dance department (THAD) will present its adaptation of Aristophanes’ “The Frogs,” a biting political satire on the current state of U.S. politics.
“The Frogs” is a different kind of production than what WSU’s theater department is known for. Unlike the more modern musical and theatrical fare that has filled the season, like “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Gideon’s Knot,” the play is based on the classic Greek comedy of the same name by Aristophanes, who was a Greek playwright specializing in Old Comedy.
“[Old Comedy is] characterized by bawdy humor, scatological references, high-energy slapstick and, most importantly, biting satire directed towards public figures,” explained director Jim Williams.
The original play follows the plight of Dionysus, the god of wine and patron of the theater, in his quest to bring real tragedy back to the Greek stage. In the original play, he travels to Hades to hold a contest between the two tragic playwrights Sophocles and Euripides to determine who will come back to life.
In WSU’s version, Sophocles and Euripides are replaced by Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon, as Dionysus searches for a president with a moral compass to come back to life and replace Donald Trump as president of the U.S.
“In the current toxic political environment, it is natural to make parallels between Dionysus’ search for the best tragic poet and those 52-percent of Americans looking for a president who has a moral compass rather than a raging ego,” Williams said.
The play was reimagined by Williams to take into account more accessible themes for a modern audience –– in this case, who’s sitting in the country’s highest office. According to WSU sophomore Jessica Campbell, who plays several roles in the production, the play was constantly changing as the national news cycle continued to rapidly develop.
”Every rehearsal, something changed,” Campbell said. “If something changed with politics, we have to add something into the show. This is something that I’ve never done before, and it’s been a really, really great learning experience.”
Campbell plays the parts of Hercules, the servant, and as part of the ensemble in her fifth show at WSU. She explained that the process for crafting “The Frogs” started off strange and became stranger. When she and the rest of the cast read the initial script, they were taken aback –– the language wasn’t what they were used to using, having come from more than 2,000 years earlier.
“But going through the process, and watching [Williams] work on this … it was fun seeing the gears turning in his head, too,” Campbell said. “WSU really prides itself on doing what the playwright originally intended. But since we’ve written [the adaptation] and we’ve changed it so much, there’s a lot more room to change things up.”
The play is categorized as a strong parody, despite its classical roots. A large projection screen on stage is used to show news snippets and interviews with Trump, highlighting many of the most absurd moments from his campaign and subsequent years. Of course, everything is played for laughs.
“Although the play is a classic Greek comedy, there is not much difference between that and the type of comedy one would find in ‘Saturday Night Live’ or ‘Monty Python,’” Williams explained.
In that same vein, Campbell described the play as “definitely not a kids show,” with references to classic films like “Airplane!” and hyper-comical impersonations of classic political figures. There’s even a full cast dance number, and seeing Nixon dance with Lincoln is nothing short of pure absurdism, she said.
“I would expect to laugh for sure. Since this show is political, you have to come in with an open mind and be ready to laugh at some things that might not even be your view,” Campbell stated. “It’s a place to joke about a serious topic to give audiences a break from how hard everything can be.”
“It’s very much a snarky comical critique, to put it nicely, of Donald Trump and his administration, using the elements of Greek Old Comedy as the foundation for the production,” Williams added.
WSU THAD’s presentation of “The Frogs” by Aristophanes will be performed at 7:30 p.m. from April 10 through April 13 at the Vivian Fusillo Theatre on the WSU campus. Tickets are $12, and are available online or at the box office at the Performing Arts Center. Box office hours are from noon until 4 p.m. on weekdays, and one hour before performances. For tickets or more information, visit wsuartstickets.com.