Following Saturday's presentation of Thesmophoriazusae - this summer's annual Genesius Guild send-up of an ancient-Greek comedy - I had the chance to say hi to its adaptor/director, Don Wooten. I congratulated the Guild founder on the sensationally silly 75 minutes that he and his cast had just delivered, and during our conversation, another patron came up to Wooten and told him that this Aristophanes goof was the most enjoyable season-ender she'd seen in decades.
Well, damn ... that trumps my praise.
I'm inclined, however, to believe this woman; to be sure, I heard (and personally contributed to) bigger, more sustained laughs at Thesmophoriazusae that at any of the other four Guild spoofs I'd attended. And that's really saying something.
Wooten's slaphappy burlesques, with their self-deprecating wit and pointed jabs, are always a jovial blend of the ridiculous and the wise, sprinkled with tongue-in-cheek musical numbers and culminating in a Mack Sennett-inspired chase (which is more of a jog) around the Lincoln Park stage. It's pure formula, but the formula really works, and the audience is so primed for these offerings that even the shows' weaker jokes and less-committed performances and occasionally dropped lyrics add to their charm. (It's impossible to be put off by a lack of polish when lack of polish is a show's calling card.)
But while you'll still get everything you expect out of Thesmophoriazusae, what you'll get is also funnier, leaner, and - in the case of four especially deserving targets - gratifyingly meaner than you might be anticipating. One of the production's most frequent running gags involves characters lamenting the absence of a script, but don't be fooled; there's a script, all right, and it's a beauty.
The storyline follows Aristophanes' to a surprisingly faithful degree, with Mnesilochus (Tim Miller) - brother-in-law to playwright Euripides (Nicholas Lindell) - infiltrating the Greek festival of the Thesmophoria, wherein the country's women gather to celebrate the harvest. (And, as at most outdoor festivals, to drink.) Dressed in female garb, and with a strategically placed veil covering his beard, Mnesilochus gets away with it for a short time. But once his ruse is literally uncovered, all comedic hell breaks loose, resulting in vociferous anger, incensed promises of vengeance, and Mnesilochus' eventual encounters with the likes of Dick and Jane, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Rod Blagojevich.
Okay, granted, this last part is nothing you'll find in Aristophanes. But for all of its intentional lunacy, Wooten's re-imaging of this tale is wonderfully clever throughout. There are riffs on local institutions (Dwyer & Michaels, Channel 6) and national embarrassments (the Bush administration's policy of "enhanced interrogation techniques"), and a priceless comparison between a smooth-talking charlatan and public radio. ("You sound so pretty, but I can never tell what you're selling.") There are swipes at Pat Robertson and Fox News and the Rock Island mayoral election, and much self-directed mockery of the Guild itself - particularly the extravagance of its recent pair of Shakespeare dramas. (Regarding the gleefully ragtag, anachronistic wardrobe selections, one character admits, "Our costumer still hasn't sobered up from Henry the Sixth." After her sublime contributions this summer, Ellen Dixon is wholly deserving of a few cocktails.)
Thesmophoriazusae's cast, meanwhile, plays stupid with terrific smarts, with Miller - whose escalating vocal anxiety suggests Wallace Shawn (minus the speech impediment) at his most deliriously excitable - a marvelous tour guide through this ship of fools. Adam Kuta is smashingly hilarious as a swishy (albeit big-hearted) stereotype in a periwinkle grown and red high tops; Andy Curtiss and Grace Pheiffer (the former King Henry and Margaret!) enact a grinning, happily vacant Dick and Jane; Jim Loula's hysterically deadpan Tonto surrogate bristles with hatred for Bob Hanske's senile "Prone Stranger"; Pat Flaherty and Michael Miller ooze comic sleaze as a pair of sunglass-wearing smoothies. (In its last three minutes, Miller manages to steal the show with a pitch-perfect take on Alfonso Bedoya's immortal "Badges?!? We don't need no stinkin' badges!!!")
And so much more. Ann Miller, in a shrewd spin on her role in this summer's Hecuba, guiding eight endearing young ladies through a series of daffy chorus pronouncements. ("I'll take some of that action, too," they announce, in unison.) Jacob Lyon showing off his graceful dance prowess as a mustachioed Keystone Cop. Dee Canfield's grieving Mama crooning a comically earnest take on the classic "M-O-T-H-E-R" tune. A brilliant Chorus routine that expresses character, underscores plot, and combines the titles of nearly a dozen soap operas in roughly 45 seconds. (On Saturday, the bit received deserved applause.)
Plus, Wooten's pièce de résistance: a cheerful little ditty, sung to the tune of "Cabaret," featuring satiric - and joyously nasty - doppelgängers of Governors Rod Blagojevich (Earl Strupp), Mark Sanford (Andy Curtiss), Eliot Spitzer (Bryan Woods), and Sarah Palin (a riotous, fabulously well-cast Andrea Braddy). Near Thesmophoriazusae's finale, when faced with Genesius Guild's hostile takeover from an unfriendly conglomerate, Mnesilochus defends the group by asserting, "It's a fairly respectable way of loafing through the summer!" Hell, yeah, it is.
For more information, visit Genesius.org.