In March 2003, peaceniks and thespians from all parts of the world mounted staged readings of Lysistrata, a Greek play about a group of Athenian women who refused their husbands sex back in 3rd century BC in order to protest the Peloponnesian War. Written by Aristophanes, Lysistrata has such an imaginative comic premise that it resonates thousands of years later. Hence, the Lysistrata Project, which launched to protest the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Its organizers weren’t necessarily advocating for another sex strike (though they probably wouldn’t have opposed the idea, either); rather, they believed that an anti-war play, performed en masse, might turn the tide of public opinion.
That’s the same contention held by the character Aristophanes, who stars in Jeff Raz’s new play, The Road to Hades, which runs through September 11 at John Hinkel Park in Berkeley. Directed by Sabrina Klein and produced by the Shotgun Players, the play is a circus comedy with a thin script and a fervent social message. It’s entertaining but not thought-provoking, with a cast of supremely talented actors who make what they can of the material.
Which isn’t much. Raz, the playwright, also stars as Aristophanes. His background is mainly in circus arts, and in that respect he has tons of street cred: Cirque du Soleil, Pickle Family Circus, Vaudeville Nouveau, Make*A*Circus, Medical Clown Project, and founder of the Clown Conservatory. After many decades in the biz, he can still juggle flaming torches, execute perfect somersaults, and look convincing in a commedia dell’arte mask. Unfortunately, he’s a little less convincing as a writer. Although Raz has written many plays — The Road to Hades opened concurrently with Circus Adventure, a work he penned for Bay Area Children’s Theatre — he’s no master of plot. In many ways, The Road to Hades is an idea in search of a story to carry it.
In a nutshell, it’s about Aristophanes’ quest to persuade Zeus that art — specifically, theater — can serve as a consummate pacifier. Aristophanes clings to this credo, but he also has an ulterior motive: Apparently, there’s a vacancy for the “God of Peace” position on Mount Olympus, and Aristophanes is muscling for it. It’s his ticket out of Hades, where he’s evidently been stuck for 2,000 years, just long enough to launch his own independent theater company.
Aristophanes’ main competition is Aphrodite (played by SF Mime Troupe actor Velina Brown), the all-powerful goddess of love and sexuality, who thinks that “peace” and “peace-making” are already subsumed within her role. Aphrodite recruits the women of Hades to perform a new rendition of Lysistrata, while Aristophanes tries his hand at a new protest play. Besides winning Zeus over, he must also quell the dissenting voices of Ares (John Mercer), god of war and general thorn in the side of any working pacifist, and Hermes (Ryan O’Donnell), Zeus’ emissary and main sycophant. He also has to throw in some fart jokes, make at least one gratuitous reference to the hooded Abu Ghraib figure, and somehow find that precarious balance between levity and gravitas.
So therein lies the complication. Raz doesn’t have the charisma of his three co-stars, but he does know how to juggle and do acrobatics. His cast largely consists of other circus performers who trot around the outdoor amphitheatre in shredded shirts and white face paint. Five of them are elementary and middle school students. Some double as musicians, the most notable of whom is Johannes Mager, who plays Apollo and also composed the score. All are impressively agile. They make good use of the entire space at John Hinkel, often darting up and down the aisles, disappearing into a grove of trees at the park’s edge. O’Donnell probably exerts himself the most, since he’s constantly running up the glade to a high perch where supposedly sits the great Zeus, played by graphic artist R. Black, via a rattling piece of sheet metal.
Seriously. The sheet metal represents a peal of thunder, which stands in for the voice of almighty Zeus. It’s one of several low-tech innovations that increase the entertainment value of this play. There’s also a very cool set piece in the second act (courtesy of scenic designer Martin Flynn), which is meant to resemble the inside of a Walmart store. The other big selling point, of course, is the acting. Mercer is a fabulous talent, and he’ll manhandle just about any part that gets foisted on him — even that of Ares, a stereotypical manly-man with a big spear. O’Donnell, who wears a gold cape and bizarre athletic shorts, makes a big fuss in defending his role as both a messenger and patron of cowherds/shepherds/travelers/thieves. Many jokes are cracked at the expense of modern theater companies who’ve taken it upon themselves to reinterpret Aristophanes — including, yes, the Lysistrata Project.
With all those details taken into consideration, it’s a fairly arresting play, and it ends with the kind of feel-good anti-war message that will easily find favor with Berkeley audiences. Such things can almost compensate for the flatness of the storyline. Almost.