Greek Combo

Aristophanes goes melodic and mod

ASSEMBLYWOMEN! adapted by Greg Robic from Aristophanes, directed by Marc Richard, with Elizabeth Beele, Rebecca Golden, Don McManus and Leo Wigglesworth. Presented by Elysian Productions at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle). Previews from Monday (July 29), opens Wednesday (July 31) and runs to August 11 at 8 pm (no shows August 4-5), matinees Saturday 2 pm. $40, stu/srs $35. 416-978-8668.

Rating: NNNNN

Greg Robic began his professional theatrical career with his head in the clouds.Or, more precisely, in Clouds, a rarely performed ancient comedy by Aristophanes that played for 15 months at the Poor Alex, making it one of the longest-running Canadian musicals ever.

Robic’s 1995 version wasn’t done straight, though. Like the original 2,500-year-old show, which is conjectured to have been a musical, Clouds was peppered with stolen 19th-century tunes — by Rossini, Sullivan and others — and clever lyrics by Robic himself. The parody of Socrates and his school hit a few contemporary notes, too, including potshots at rising post-secondary tuition.

The result was a delightful, energetic comedy full of sly wit and laughs even for those who didn’t know the original source material — textual or musical.

A classics grad from the U of T and now teaching in Japan, Robic returns from Asia to oversee another Aristophanes play, the even more arcane Assemblywomen! (Ecclesiazusae). In what is essentially a satire of Book V of Plato’s Republic, the Athenian women dress up as their husbands and connive their way into the male power structure. They set up a sort of communist state, with property held in common and the old and ugly having sexual rights before the young and attractive.

Government doesn’t work quite the way the women planned, though.

“Western comedy follows a totally different path from that of Aristophanes,” explains Robic, still jet-lagged from his Japan flight. “Most of what we watch today derives from the boy-meets-girl, parents-object-to-the-match, wily-servant-helps-young-lovers school.

“Aristophanes’ work, in comparison, is chaotic and uses a musical structure that totally departs from plot. We’d call it postmodern or deconstructed. With its lack of structure, it’s a lot like Monty Python.”

Robic began working on Assemblywomen! eight years ago, while he was still at the U of T. It grew out of the university’s high-school classics day, used to entice students in high school to study ancient things Greek and Roman.

He admits, though, that the adaptations he worked on were partly written to give himself a chance to sing modified forms of his favourite Gilbert-and-Sullivan songs.

Robic’s earlier musical inspirations remain the same for Assemblywomen!, with some Puccini and Les Miz thrown into the mix.

“Aristophanes’ plays always ended in a song to begin a feast, and in this script he creates a 72-syllable word that strings together a series of Greek foods. We’ve inserted that word into one song.”

Set in 1918 Canada, Robic’s adaptation picks up on suffragist as well as neo-classical themes. He’s strayed from Aristophanes in the second half, “imposing the symmetrical chaotic order of French bedroom farce onto the action.

“The whole city ends up in anarchy, which resolves in a Gilbert-and-Sullivan moment, totally implausible but satisfying to everyone.”

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