Matthew Amendt’s new play The Comedian’s Tragedy asks the burning question why did Aristophanes, the master of Greek comedy, never write any tragedies. Socrates in Plato’s Symposium equated comedy and tragedy with Aristophanes present, but the question does not seem to have been asked these 2,400 years. While Amendt attempts to pass off his play as history, he plays fast and loose with the actual facts.
Director Bill McCallum’s production does not help things by having the actors from ancient Athens mainly in contemporary clothing and having several historically male characters played by women. As most of the people in the play are not household names except to Greek scholars, this makes the play much more difficult to follow let alone recall what one should know about life in the days of Socrates and Aristophanes.
Ron Menzel as the Chorus Leader, at first dominates the play, but, in fact, the hero or protagonist turns out to be playwright Aristophanes (here called Aris) who is suffering from writer’s block. Dissolute and in mourning for both his lost love Lysistrata (apparently not the heroine of his famous comedy) and his parents, Aristophanes is a pariah in Athens for having defamed the ruler and general Cleon and been found guilty in a trial that branded him a pervert (of dreams). However, he and the Persian woman Xerxica (a fictitious character) fall in love and he is inspired to begin a tragedy for the next play festival. However, Cleon brings further charges and the resulting trial brings tragedy to all involved.
The play includes too many tangential plots which are never entirely explained: Socrates and Alicibiades’ ongoing feud, Cleon’s problems with his wife Aeresta, the multiple tragedies of Aristophanes’ Uncle Themon, as well as problems with the theater and the jury systems. Even at two and a half hours, the play cannot do justice to all of these plots.
Amendt assumes a knowledge of ancient Athens and its leading citizens which is a mistake as much necessary information is left unavailable to the viewer while in the theater (Google, please help!). Without program notes or introductions in the play, we are not told what we need to know about the conflict between Alcibiades (who is identified here with the god Dionysus) and Socrates (here a stand-in for the god Apollo). We are never told in what way Aristophanes libeled Cleon in his extant satiric plays like The Clouds and The Knights (as well as the lost Babylonians) and as these are rarely staged in favor of his more erotic Lysistrata, the audience is at a disadvantage. Cleon’s wife Aeresta (possibly a fictitious character) has a beef with him but this is never made clear either. That the prominent Athenian politicians Cleon and Nicias are played by women but were men only adds to the historical confusion.
McCallum’s cast is extremely uneven, some playing for laughs, most over the top even when little is at stake. Much of Menzel’s early speeches as the Chorus Leader are mumbled so that we do not know all we should know. Derek Smith’s Alcibiades and Gary Lowery’s Socrates seem to be engaged in a private war that remains opaque to us. As Aristophanes, the author is too histrionic as is Sarah Baskin as the Persian woman Xerxica who too little is revealed to be a fully drawn character.
As Aristophanes’ cousin Philippus, Julian Remulla is an impassioned enigma, while Stephen D. Ambrose as his father Themon is a one-dimensional, angry old man, which is mainly the fault of the writing. Anna Sundberg as the corrupt and manipulating Cleon is forceful but we are never told why this politician is now called “the Trump of ancient Athens.” His wife Aeresta played by Truett Felt is simply a tangential character who is never fleshed out. As Nicias, Asma Thabet’s accent is impenetrable nor are we even told who this historic character was.
Izzy Fields’ unit set is covered with original art by Maia Mazaurette of Greek life and themes as well as props, bookcases, lamps of all shapes and sizes, and mismatched chairs. Devoid of atmosphere, this gives the play no sense of time and place. Fields’ costumes are mainly contemporary but she put Nicias into a hoop skirt and Cleon into a 19th century army jacket, for no explainable reason other than to keep the time and place from being fixed to any one period. Mazaurette’s paintings are impressive but as they cover all sides of the stage walls and theater they are a distraction and not very suited to a theater set. As darkly lit by Leslie D. Smith, it is often difficult to see the art work which is the only connection to ancient Athens other than the historic characters’ names. The few moments of violence are the work of fight director Torsten Johnson with Maren Searle credited with movement for the whole cast.
Matthew Amendt’s The Comedian’s Tragedy in the style of meta-theater is an ambitious work which is ultimately a failure: it neither offers a compelling reason for its historic plot nor makes it dramatically believable enough to work as a tragedy. With so many facts left to the viewer’s imagination, it really needs program notes or a good deal of explanation not given by the narrator Chorus Leader. The unevenness of Bill McCallum’s deficient production makes the two and a half hours seem much longer than they actually are.
The Comedian’s Tragedy (through July 6, 2019)
Access Theater Black Box, 380 Broadway, 4th Floor, between Walker and White Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.Artful.ly
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission