In a co-production with Plays and Players, Once More Theatre, the resident company of Community College of Philadelphia, presents Aristophanes’ rarely-seen comedy about wealth and inequality in ancient Greece. Though the play was first produced in 408 BC and revised in 388 BC, it couldn’t be more significant than it is now, with the world’s ongoing economic crisis and the affluent 1% of our country controlling more than its fair share of the finances. OMT’s new adaptation by James Guckin sends that message loud and clear, in a fresh, fast, and funny approach that makes the old story comprehensible and relatable for today’s audiences: “People become jerks when they get money!”
OMT artistic director and CCP professor Peggy Mecham directs a lively ensemble of current students and recent alumni led by Guckin as the debt-ridden protagonist Chremylus, an Athenian fishmonger who might not be as poor and virtuous as he’d like everyone, including himself, to believe. Just returned from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, Chremylus was instructed to follow the first man he meets and to persuade him to join him in his household. That man turns out to be Plutus (Abrham Bogale), the god of Wealth (“Not Pluto [god of the Underworld]; this is Greece, not Rome!”), who has been metamorphosed by Zeus into a blind beggar. So the mission of Chremylus, assisted by his outspoken and wayward servant Cario (Carlos A. Forbes), is to restore Plutus’s sight, so that the deity can see fit to distribute riches to the most deserving, not just to dole them out blindly. He does, and as a result, the whole socio-economic structure of Athens is upended, as the sudden reversal of fortunes (of the “trust-fund babies, athletes, and rock stars”) calls into question the values of humankind and the greed and selfishness that seem to be inherent in human nature and impact even the gods.
Using colorful current vernacular (like “Screw that!,” “It sucks!,” “Rich assholes!,” and “Bro’”) and anachronistic references that the ancients have never heard and can’t quite understand (“From head to toe”), Guckin’s updated script is smart, silly, and just right for a spirited young cast. Along with the lead actors, Kassy Bradford is exasperated as the straight-shooting cheeky Chorus, who must explain and interpret everything for the characters and the audience (admitting that the play “makes me wonder about those ancient Greeks”); the terrific Evander Johnson is a comedic natural in his hilarious roles as the Crowd Leader, Honest Man, and Zeus; and Barbaraluz Orlanda, as the lovely and richly arrayed goddess of Poverty, tries unsuccessfully to convince the naysayers of the necessity of her existence (“The world needs me . . . Society would crumble without me”), as she strikes satiric poses around the stage, but earnestly questions who would do the work if everyone had enough money.
In addition to delivering the dialogue, the cast also clearly enjoys performing wacky segments of song (music by Nazeer L. Harper) and dance (choreography by Urim Morina) that contribute to the overall zaniness of the show. A clever set (by CCP faculty member Teddy Mosoeanu) and props (Alexandra Mosoeanu) are effective in conveying the circumstances of the characters, the story, and its message within the production’s limited budget, and the costumes (Michelle Mercier) smartly combine then and now, with the men garbed in both historicizing chitons and post-modern sneakers sprayed in gold.
The partnership of OMT with Plays & Players affords the college-based company the opportunity to present work in a well-known off-campus venue, while giving the public a chance to see the next generation of emerging talents in Philadelphia. Whether or not the ancient Greeks were familiar with the expression, that’s a win/win situation all around!
[Skinner Studio, Plays and Players, 1714 Delancey Place] February 4-20, 2016; playsandplayers.org.