Dead on Arrival

4. September, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #73: The Road to Hades, Shotgun Players, August 6.

Ares (John Mercer) in a dress in in The Road to Hades. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

By Sam Hurwitt

The Road to Hades looks like it must be a fun show to be in—a big ensemble romp with a lot of singing and clowning around. The entire Shotgun Players 20th anniversary season is made up of commissioned world premieres, and this is one of them—a play about the ancient Athenian comedic playwright Aristophanes, written by and starring clown/actor/playwright Jeff Raz, whose work I’ve followed since I first saw him as a juggler in Vaudeville Nouveau in the early ‘80s.  Like a lot of recent Shotgun summer shows in the outdoor amphitheater at John Hinkel Park (former home of the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival), it has a larger cast than you’d find on Shotgun Players’ own Ashby Stage: 20 actors, including a few kids. Unlike those shows, however, this one is kind of a mess. Directed by Sabrina Klein, it has some fun moments and some strong performers in the cast, but mostly it’s loose and disconnected.

Martin Flynn’s set is pretty rough: an arch that looks made out of painted boxes and a big disc on the ground displaying classical figures of gods or warriors. As the audience enters, the actors are doing exercises prompted by Raz’s Aristophanes with a circuslike “Hup!” (Raz founded SF Circus Center’s Clown Conservatory, so this part comes naturally.)  A couple of the actors sing us a droll little ditty about the Port-a-Potties, and Aristophanes goes up the aisles working the crowd.  (We’ll call him Ari from here on out, because we’re all friends here.)

It turns out that this is what they do all day, every day for the last 2397 years. That’s how long they’ve been in Hades, where apparently people just keep on doing whatever it was they were doing when they died, and his troupe seemingly all died onstage. (“It was a very bad day at the amphitheatre,” Ari says.)

The play is very, very broad, and its plot is very, very thin. Ari fantasizes aloud about how much he wants to be alive and change the world with his plays, and says that if he were alive today he’d be a god of peace.  Well, he’s in luck because no sooner does he say this than Hermes and Ares walk in looking for a new god of peace.  Zeus has ordained that there’s a job opening in Olympus because Aphrodite is supposed to be in charge of peace but pretty much ignores those duties in favor of her other shtick as goddess of love. Convenient!

Unfortunately, everyone pretty much ignores Ari when he tries to lobby for the job. Ares isn’t all that interested in finding a god of peace in the first place, and Aphrodite doesn’t want to give up power over anything, no matter how disinterested she is in the particular thing she has power over.  Honestly, everyone’s motivations get a bit garbled and hard to summarize or understand in the first place, but at some point or another Ari manages to get each of the deities to act in scenes that he wrote to amusing effect.

John Mercer seems to be having a ball as Ares, fierce and imperious, dressed like a pro wrestler in a Santa cape.  Of course they wind up making him dress up in women’s clothes at some point, just because. Ryan O’Donnell has a White Rabbit sort of preoccupied hurriedness as Hermes, always running in circles when he’s not running off somewhere. Raz is a charming, eager-to-please jester as Aristophanes, with a big fixed grin on his face with more than a hint of desperation.

In a rare summer appearance in something other than a Mime Troupe show, Velina Brown brings a touch of class as Aphrodite, dressed by costumer Maggie Whitaker in a variety of colorful saris and gowns. The strongest moment in the show is when Brown’s haughty Aphrodite acting out scenes from Lysistrata because Ari convinced her that it would be a good idea for some reason—probably because it demonstrates that power over the amorous aspect of life can bring about peace, or something like that.

At one point Aphrodite says she’s taking all the women in the troupe—the “dead divas”—shopping on earth so that they can show Zeus the power of women. The ladies can’t contain their giddiness, because as we all know women completely lose their minds whenever anyone even mentions the word shopping, even if they’re long-deceased ancient Greeks.  Just imagine if there was a woman president and just as we were on the brink of nuclear war someone mentioned there was a sale on at Lane Bryant—but I digress. “We’re foxy fighting furies armed with accessories,” the dead ladies sing.

Then Aphrodite leaves and everyone forgets all about the shopping trip while Ari puts Hermes in a play, gets into an argument with Ares, and oversees a musical faceoff between the peace-loving women and war-loving men. (Why the men of the troupe suddenly start following Ares is anyone’s guess.)  And then Aphrodite reappears as suddenly as she left, and it’s time to go to Wal-Mart! Yes, Wal-Mart, where everyone goes for high fashion.  It’s not clear whether Raz is trying to satirize something with this scene or just give people the chance to play goofy dress-up like little kids, but it falls flat.

Fortunately this bewildering bit is followed by Aphrodite and the other women going straight into their terrific Lysistrata scene. The Road to Hades may never really come together as a play in its own right, but it’s oddly effective as a tribute to Aristophanes. After all, the best bits are the ones he wrote.

The Road to Hades runs through September 11 at John Hinkel Park,  Berkeley.

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