With "The Frogs," Aristophanes got the best of both worlds--that of the living and the underworld of the dead.
Both worlds weren't enough, apparently, for director Michael Holmes, who has staged "The Frogs" at the Chandler Studio. He has tried to add the present-day world of Los Angeles.
Holmes' primary adaptation tool is the chorus of frogs hanging out in Hades. Holmes' frogs, though they squat and ribbit, are supposed to represent gang members who gained wisdom during their time on Earth.
Yet there is nothing about this frog gang that remotely connects to Los Angeles' gangs. More than half of the chorus is teenage girls. And in Don Nelson's costumes--sunglasses, leather jackets and pastel baseball caps--they have more in common with a high school production of "West Side Story" than with L.A. gangs.
Holmes has turned the chorus numbers into musicals, some with more success than others. Choreographer Scott Allen has done a decent job shaping the dance numbers around the small stage. But when the Frogs do "In the Afterlife," you wish they'd just let the Squirrel Nut Zippers do the singing.
Curiously, only the players in the chorus have been "adapted." The rest of the cast remains in Greek-style robes (though with comic touches, like red underwear).
Dionysus (David Bennett), the patron of drama, is trying to sneak into Hades so he can bring a hit playwright back to the land of the living. He and his slave, Xanthias (Addison Parker)--who has a very funny time trying to control his mule--go through all sorts of high jinks in Act I while trying to impersonate Hercules, who, it turns out, isn't too popular in Hades.
Act II is where Aristophanes gets down to business. Dionysus is forced to decide whom he will take back to Athens: the popular Euripides (Clive Rees) or the more serious Aeschylus (Mike Fairman). The two writers engage in a hilarious war of words, but this is more than a clash of Titanic egos. Tucked into the dialogue are rather serious questions about art. What type of plays best serve the people? Those that appeal to them? Or those that claim to have a higher purpose?
Rees and Fairman contrast each other nicely, and Bennett is a manic and funny Dionysus. Parker and Jason Cramer, who plays another slave, Aeacus, make the most of a hilarious scene in which they discuss the merits of their station in life. Another witty touch is an allusion to the much-disputed relationship between Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in "Ben Hur."
This production could have used more of that kind of subtlety. The best parts of "The Frogs" remain pure Aristophanes.
"The Frogs," Chandler Studio Theatre, 12433 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. No shows April 11-12. Ends April 26. $15. (818) 908-4094.