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Theater: The Frogs
2007-05-09

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The Frogs. Photo by Michael Brosilow

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Playwright: Adapted by Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, from the play by Aristophanes

At: Pegasus Players at the O'Rourke Center of Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson

Phone: 773-878-9761; $15-$25

Runs through: June 3

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

Aristophanes' satirical comedy, The Frogs, premiered at the Athens Lenaian Festival circa 450 B.C. Stephen Sondheim and Bert Shevelove's musical version premiered at the Yale Drama School with an amphibious chorus representing the title characters in 1974. Pegasus Players found this concept a natural fit for their quarters in 1988, a proposed revival in 2004 scuttled by Nathan Lane's adaptation of Shevelove's original text, with several new Sondheim songs added, for New York's Lincoln Center. But all that you need to know about the production currently running until June 3 is that it's staged in a swimming pool.

The first row of seats comprises rubber cushions where willing playgoers can perch with feet dangling in the water ( no kicking, now ) . The second row is for spectators keeping their shoes on, but still prey to a little splashback at the deep end as chorus members tuck-dive into the watery depths. ( Actors' exits present no problem—as soon as someone finishes speaking, into the drink he or she goes. ) Further blurring the fourth wall, as well as compensating somewhat for the acoustics in a room never designed for declamatory exhibitions, is the characters' propensity for stalking the narrow perimeter of the natatorium to interact with their audience.

It's not only a stunt show, however: The quest of Dionysos, patron god of the theater, to save a world in danger of becoming as rigidly conformist as a colony of frogs is a heroic one. And the climactic duel of words between George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, resurrected from the dead, is imbued with still-timely arguments on the disparate influences of intellect and emotion in keeping the peace. That the debaters make their cases from rafts propelled by the sensual sybarites of Pluto's Retreat does not diminish the seriousness of their discourse—well, not much.

Jay Paul Skelton directs a 21-member cast led by Steven Marzolf and John Francisco in the roles of Dionysos and his mischievous sidekick Xanthias, featuring verbally deft performances by Matthew Holzfeind and Brendan Marshall-Rashid as, respectively, Shaw and Shakespeare. The real stars of the show, however, are the water-treading vocalists who warble in unwavering harmony whether paddling gracefully with hardly a surface ripple or attacking a terrified voyager in a furious swarm of red-and-black wetsuits and incognito swim-goggles. Ribbit!


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