From Payton Brasher’s brooding Stage Manager soliloquy kicking off the evening to the concluding chase sequence set to music, Genesius Guild’s Ecclesiazusae doesn’t take itself too seriously. And yet this comedic production, originally written by Greek playwright Aristophanes in 391 BC and updated here by Don Wooten, still manages to make a statement appropriate for 2019. It’s hard to believe this production marks the end of Genesius Guild’s season, and even though the show celebrates the entire summer series with references to its previous presentations throughout, it’s welcoming and understandable to anyone. I was thrilled to see so many people on hand to enjoy Saturday’s opening-night performance.
Directed by Philip Tunnicliff, Ecclesiazusae is the story of Praxagora (Patti Flaherty), who leads a group of women into the government assembly to gain control, as they’re convinced they will do a better job than the men have. So they dress as men and basically hijack the vote. Throughout the evening, the plot was incredibly discernible... which may have been because the actors continually explained what was happening to those cast members who “missed rehearsal.” But this reiteration kept this one-act story paced at a steady clip.
The stage reflected the mindset of Praxagora and her band of women followers with female-centric slogans printed graffiti-style on the walls – the only set decoration besides the cartoonishly written title in the back center. The gang of what was supposed to be “all the women of Athens” was merely six ladies (Bella Kuta, Mehkia McDowell, Jenya Loughney, Ava Coussens, Elena Vallejo, and Kathryn Wherry), who explained their lack of numbers with a simple “When this play was written, Athens was much smaller.” It was amusing little bits such as this that kept this sassy production relevant and moving right along. This group of fierce femininity picked up a new member when annoyed mother Bedraglia (Vickie Underwood) decided to join in. Underwood and Flaherty were easy to hear and understand, and both seemed to be very comfortable in their roles. Flaherty earned her role as an on-stage leader with her excellent comedic timing and positive projection of a genuine belief that women would do well in power. Flaherty also possessed the most regal, and classically Greek, of Ellen Dixon’s wide array of costumes. It was curious that the opening parade featured so many pieces that are never seen again, but if given the chance to rock a propeller hat or swimming flippers, why wouldn’t you?
Even a play specifically about women couldn’t overlook the gentlemen, and in Ecclesiazusae, several came together to form the Dirty Old Men Club. Where it would have been only too easy to turn their scene into something requiring the #metoo hashtag, Tunnicliff kept things proper and family-friendly, with a bevy of unwashed-armpit jokes. Blepyros (George Cornelius), Pheidolos (Guy Cabell), and Chremes (Don O’Shea) debated and discussed the goings-on of the women, and – while the trio was never quite sure what was going on – they certainly brought a distinguished element to the stage.
Of course, 2019 politics couldn’t be completely ignored. And so Lush Rimbaugh (Jim Loula) and Brett (Tyler Henning), the judge wearing a red baseball cap that paired well with his red Solo cup, also made appearances – though, luckily, these moments also played out as ridiculous instead of preachy. In truth, this updated script was generally funny, but not overly insulting toward any one thing. (I will, of course, freely overlook the moments in which the cast mocked critics. This comedy’s all in good fun, after all.)
Ecclesiazusae is a production not afraid of parody, and these were the particular moments in which the production really shined. There were the overly eager, singing-wait-staff members of the Bootlickers (Zoe Grabow, Spencer Lykam, CJ Elliott, Logan Braun, and Wherry) who were mysteriously attacked slapstick-style throughout the performance until their numbers dwindled. There were also two Frenchmen (Jacob Lund and Henning) who were more than vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python characters as they hurled insults and jokes alike.
And with two rather well-done musical reworkings, this production was bound and determined to keep the humor relatable and fun. While many audience members seemed taken by the “Democratic Primary” song to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” it did seem a bit wordy and felt a little stiff to me. I favored “The Show Is Almost Over” song-and-dance by the women. (I certainly didn’t need the show to be almost over, but I can always appreciate silly dancing.) Ecclesiazusae actually featured a number of different dance numbers, and Charles Murphy’s Epigenes, faking his way into the women’s kick line, was a real highlight.
Ecclesiazusae was an energetic production that ran for approximately one hour, making it a perfect dollop of exposure to classical theatre with a modern twist for even younger audience members to enjoy. While the climactic race around the stage was indistinguishable from a curtain call, leading to several minutes of clapping, this large cast definitely earned their hearty audience approval.
Genesius Guild's Ecclesiazusae runs at Lincoln Park (11th Avenue and 38th Street) through August 4, admission is free with donations encouraged, and more information is available by visiting Genesius.org.