Amidst the laughter that accompanied Saturday night's Lincoln Park presentation of The Frogs, I was especially aware of one particular audience member's vocal enjoyment. He was seated quite a bit away from me, but judging by the timbre, I'd say he was about five or six, and he'd routinely giggle with an involuntary, infectious happiness that made it sound as though he was being tickled. A bunch of us were, actually.
Leave it to Aristophanes adapter Don Wooten and the merry talents at Genesius Guild to fashion a Greek comedy filled with political, literary, pop-culture, and local-culture gags that even a child would find utterly delightful. A 75-minute hodgepodge of the devastatingly smart and the profoundly silly, The Frogs is this year's annual, season-ending Guild lampoon and, over the past three seasons, the best I've yet seen; director Barb Carroll keeps the goofiness sailing along at a breezy pace, and the cast is filled with utterly likable comedians.
But the true star, of course, is The Frogs' playwright, and I'm not referring to Aristophanes. I came into this job late, so allow me to ask: Is it possible that Don Wooten has upheld this standard of inspired, parodistic burlesque for 51 years now? As ever, he starts with a Greek text - this one finds the god Dionysus (Peter Soderberg) and his servant Xanthias (David Wooten) traveling to Hades to resurrect the dramatist Euripides (Bryan Woods) - and winds up with a cheerfully vicious spoof that manages to poke fun at theatrical conventions, beloved American (and Quad Cities) institutions, and even Genesius Guild itself. (There's a great bit here in which two characters discuss the inherent challenges of theatre in the park.) The playwright does, eventually, get around to telling Aristophanes' tale, but Wooten's satire is so keen - and, oftentimes, so biting - that it wouldn't much matter if he didn't.
Some 15 minutes into the production, Xanthias turns to the audience and tells us to start paying attention, as the plot is about to be revealed. By that time, however, we've already been laughing for about 15 minutes straight. I'm not sure that anything topped Dionysus' introductory song, which summarizes the play's backstory to the title tune from Man of La Mancha ("I am I, Dionysus / A god from Olympus ... "). But a giddily mean-spirited crack about the Davenport City Council earned a huge laugh, as did one on the impossibility of explaining immigration reform, and all throughout its prelude, Soderberg and David Wooten attacked their punchlines and unexpected references with sensational relish. (That giggling kid in the audience liked Wooten, especially - he delivered wonderfully broad reactions.)
However, once the playwright began the story proper, the jokes didn't abate. There was an amusing running gag involving the correct pronunciation of Hades' boatman, Charon (Michael Callahan), and another on whether he was a boatman or a boatperson, plus a marvelously succinct explanation for Xanthias not serving in the military ("They asked. I told"). There were enjoyably nasty digs at George Dubya and Dick Cheney, and a brilliant routine - the best in the production - that found the literally monstrous Greek chorus of Initiates annoyed at having to speak simultaneously.
And there were the supporting performers, nearly all of whom appeared enthusiastic about getting on Wooten's jovially ridiculous wavelength. Bob Hanske was a hoot as a caveman Herakles, while Michael King was a riotous, classically Greek Michael Buffer ("Let's get ready to rhyme-o-o-o!!!"). Grace Pheiffer, with her killer smile and game comic spirit, made for a slinky Vampira - it's better if you don't ask, "Why Vampira?" - and Earl Strupp, soliloquizing on the necessity of his all-too-convenient Tragic Messenger, earned deserved exit applause for his spectacular dryness. Plus Gary Adkins, Neil Friberg, Josh Anderson, Matt Holmes - nearly across the board, The Frogs' participants seemed to be having as good a time as we were.
While I'm well aware that Wooten's adaptation reserves the lowest pits of hell for "those who criticize Genesius Guild productions," I will say that not all of the references here are at peak freshness - The Osbournes has been off the air for a few years now, yes? - and while any excuse to see Ellen Dixon's deliriously inventive costumes is a fine one, the group musical numbers seemed a little half-hearted, partially because on Saturday, the audience (and, evidently, the dancers) could barely hear the music.
But The Frogs remains wholly entertaining, even if - perhaps especially if - you find yourself the subject of one of its gags. (I've finally made the big time, Ma!) I thank Wooten and Genesius Guild for the shout-out, and am pleased to reply: The trip wasn't made for nothing.
For information, visit (http://www.genesius.org).