I can't believe it's the end of July already. Part of the proof is Genesius Guild's production of The Wasps, now invading Lincoln Park, so prepare to be stung – by laughter! (Yes, I'm ashamed now.) The Wasps is one of the rewritten-for-modern-audiences Greek comedies that traditionally cap the Guild's summer schedule. And this year, as in last, the season-ender was adapted and directed by Calvin Vo and T Green, otherwise known as Haus of Ruckus.
Playwright Aristophanes, the so-called "Father of Comedy," wrote the world's first comedic plays that we know of, meaning that his scripts happened to have been stored in a low-humidity environment. (Inarguably, there were prior comedians; I'd love to see a clip of an early-ancestor homo habilis mom making her baby laugh.) You don't have to know ancient-Greek history or language to understand the play, but it helps. As is traditional in this theatrical style, there's a mind-bending abundance of exposition, so I may have missed hearing that Cleon (a.k.a. "Kleon," as Greek doesn't have the letter "c") was a general and politician in fifth-century-B.C. Athens. So as contemporary satire, Aristophanes' players were the Capitol Steps or “Weekend Update” of their time.
The playwright considered Cleon a war-mongering demagogue – an anti-intellectual politician who exploited the prejudices of commoners for personal gain. So, Aristophanes named one central character Philokleon (because a "bibliophile" loves bibs – I mean, books – you can work out how the dude feels about Kleon), and another, Phobokleon (who, as the characters explain, "phobos" Kleon, and you can dissect "arachnophobia" to get that).
David Weaver, as Philokleon, holds this production together with his formidable comedic skills. Weaver played the title character – a French bunny with antlers – and the flavored-corn-chip herdsman Cool Rancher in Haus of Ruckus' first production "Jacques"alope, as well as a variety of roles in other shows since. He's got amazing range, is what I'm getting at. Philokleon wanders the streets seeking out juries to join, invariably sentencing every defendant to death. Therefore, his son makes it his mission to keep Dad confined to quarters. Mel Maylum, who plays that son Phobokleon, has worked at several area venues onstage and backstage, and delivers a believable performance as a frustrated father-thwarter.
Guild veteran Jacob Lund once again plays a servant/slave, this time one named Xanthias (here euphemized as "unpaid intern"), as he did earlier this season in Iphigenia in Aulis and in last year's Greek comedy The Frogs. He's a gem. The marvelous Olivia Akers, fresh from her serious role as Desdemona in Othello, portrays another servant, Sosias. (And I do mean "fresh," as Othello closed the previous weekend, which means she was rehearsing two sizable roles simultaneously.) Akers and Lund were perfectly cast to open the show, explain things, and warm up Saturday's opening-night crowd.
Here, we have literal wasps, not metaphorical ones, as Aristophanes so labeled his original cranky elderly male chorus. And they're not just waspish, stinging others due to personal rage issues – they're also WASPs. (I come from a solid White Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage myself, if "Saxon" means "German." But being decidedly working class and only technically Protestant, I don't quite fit the stereotype.) Anyway, I enjoyed these aggressive characters as enacted by Joe Sager, Julia Sears, Katie Phillips, Nathan Elgatian, and Wiz Woolley. Along with the frankly adorable modified rod marionette wasps they controlled, they represented their nature visually in Shannon Ryan's stylish costumes, as did everyone else on stage. Like last year, the stage manager, played by Sears, occasionally interrupts the show to harangue the actors. (And like last year, the show's actual stage manager is Liz Sager.)
Per the satire code, amusing cultural and local references are strewn about. For example, we get the old Casey Kasem fear stutter, as in "Gh-gh-gh-ghost!", though the fear here isn't of gh-gh-gh-ghosts. (Yeah, Kasem played Shaggy in Scooby-Doo. Keep reading theatre reviews right here for more interesting facts!) We get song parodies, too. The Haus of Chucklenuts (hey – they call themselves that!) also include their usual unusual absurdities … unless people actually do play Monopoly with the masks from Iphigenia in Aulis that come alive at night, in which case I beg all their pardons.
Then there's the trial with a dog who stole cheese accusing another dog of stealing the cheese … . No, wait. That was in Aristophanes' original script. (But get your hankies ready for the cheese's widow's testimony!) There are self-deprecating bits, audience insults, and some of the dialogue skewers reviewers. They haven't yet name-checked me in any performances I've seen, but tell me if they mock me when I'm not there. (On second thought – don't tell me.)
This production would've no doubt been tighter and smoother with an additional one or two weeks of rehearsal. However, that's not feasible, as Genesius Guild performs four summer shows, eight weekends in a row. But there are laughs, groaners, and even charm in this good-natured play. You may not know diddly about classical theatre, but with this Haus of Ruckus version of The Wasps, it doesn't have to be Greek to you.
Genesius Guild's The Wasps runs in Lincoln Park (1120 40th Street, Rock Island IL) through July 30, and more information is available by visiting Genesius.org.