Del O'Cleon is a Washington hipster with a very un-cool problem. Her father, Phil O'Cleon, has a serious case of Tea Party fever, and he'll do anything to join the enthusiastic mobs descending on the capitol with their picket signs and Gadsden flags. To make matters worse, a ferocious pack of Mama Grizzlies has taken a special interest in Phil, and they’re determined to sneak him out of the house and get him to the latest rally. Can Del pry her father from their manicured claws? Will the old man settle for the comforts and crumpets of a stay-at-home tea party? And just how much will go wrong when daddy and daughter try to mix and mingle with the liberal elite?
If the story sounds like one for the ages, that’s because it is. A slightly less contemporary (and less offensive) version of this story was first told in 422 BC in an Aristophanes play entitled “The Wasps.” A motley crew of Classics graduate and undergraduate students at Stanford, all members of the Stanford Classics in Theatre troupe (SCIT), have re-translated the nearly 2,500 year-old comedy into a modern-day tale of American politics gone haywire. On March 3rd, 4th and 5thin the Elliott Program Center, student actors from a range of academic disciplines, including Computer Science, Geophysics, Feminist Studies, and Classics, will once again bring the tale of “The Wasps” to life.
Wasps is the third SCIT production in as many years. Last year the group translated and performed a farcical version of Aristophanes’ Clouds, and in 2009 they took a sardonic look at the politics of war in a re-make of Aristophanes’ The Acharnians. Carolyn MacDonald, a second year Ph.D. student in Classics who helped to translate the The Wasps and is acting as part of the chorus, explained that Wasps was chosen “because it allowed us to build on our previous experience with Aristophanic comedy and because it is a very political and civic-minded drama.“
Wasps co-producer Alan Sheppard, a 1st Year Ph.D. student in Classics, worked on the translation and explained that Aristophanes' plays are tightly situated within the political context of fifth century Athens. He said that it was especially challenging to suffuse the translation with equivalent modern references, especially in some cases where scholars know little about the identity of the politicians or public figures Aristophanes originally referenced.
Translation is a familiar activity to Classics students, but crafting a translation for a performance adds a unique layer to the process. Sheppard said it’s both a rewarding and a challenging task. “One pays much more attention to visual references” Sheppard also noted that, “when translating I think many of us were always translating with one eye on how our translation would play out on stage, both dramatically and for comic effect.”
Aristophanes' original Greek presentation was entirely in verse and Sheppard said that was something the SCIT translators tried to recreate, at least in some parts of the play, though it wasn't easy to weave Aristophanes' original Greek themes with modern music.
The original Wasps play features Philocleon, an ageing Athenian, led on by the rhetoric of popular politicians, who is obsessed with serving as a juror in the courts and convicting his fellow-citizens. In adapting the play for modern America, SCIT decided to leave aside Philocleon’s jury obsession and focus on the divisive nature of contemporary American politics. SCIT’s Wasps features Phil O’Cleon, an old man who wanted to attend every Tea Party rally and his daughter who attempts to shut him in the house to cure his disease. The play was translated during a weekend retreat by a group of 12 Classics graduate students, an experience MacDonald describes as “a really fun weekend -- very productive, and a great bonding experience for the translators.”
After auditions early in the winter quarter a cast was assembled with undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of departments taking part. For the Classics students amongst the cast, the play is an opportunity to think about Ancient Greek drama in a new light and engage with questions of performance that may not occur when simply reading a text of the play.
Al Duncan, a fifth year Ph.D. student in Classics who is writing his dissertation of Ancient Greek drama and is directing Wasps, feels that bringing Greek comedy into the modern theater is a unique challenge: “Directing Old Comedy for a modern audience draws upon a peculiar skill set. Features that ancient theater-goers took for granted must be carefully but unobtrusively framed for 21st-century consumption: long speeches must be visually embellished, the play must be kept up-to-date with frequent contemporary references and the ever-present chorus must be made active and accessible.”
The presence of the chorus, who involve themselves in the action as well as singing and dancing, is one of Greek comedy’s defining characteristics. The original chorus of wasps are now Mama Grizzlies, supportive of PhilO’Cleon’sattempts to escape his daughter’s schemes and attend rallies. MacDonald feels that the chorus will really add to the show: “I've had a blast being in this year's chorus! Like most us, I don't have any formal dance training but our choreographer Nikita and director Al have been so supportive, and I think the musical numbers are really going to add something special to the show.”
Although Aristophanes lived and wrote his comedies nearly 2,500 years ago, his works remain popular amongst both scholars and theatre audiences thanks to a combination of political satire and comic wordplay. Duncan reflects that the performance of political comedy to a wide audience is not without modern parallels: “Politically, Greek Old Comedy went straight for the jugular, offering sustained attacks against powerful officials. We see similar tactics employed today by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert against similar targets, but through the conceit of a news program or talk show. SCIT produces its comedies in the belief that space and function remain for a political theater in the Aristophanic mould—one that pairs the obscenity and vitriol of stand-up with the narrative flights and absurdities of stoner comedies.”
The chair of the Classics department, Professor Richard Martin, who has recently been teaching a course on Aristophanes, added: “The Department of Classics is proud to support this madness. Aristophanes' no-holds-barred comedy reminds us why the ancient literature of Greece and Rome still offers sharper insights into contemporary life than any of the latest cable pap, talk-radio gush, and internet spew.”
Wasps plays from Thursday March 3rd – Saturday March 5th in the Elliott Program Center at 8pm each night (doors open 7.45pm). Performances are free for members of the Stanford community and $5 for the general public. The play contains themes not suitable for all audiences, unaccompanied minors will not be admitted. For more details see http://scit.stanford.edu/