The threads of the page, stage, and life itself have been interwoven for about as long as all three elements have existed (we'll leave cave paintings for another day). But whether we opt to wear the smiling mask or the one shedding tears on any given day, at times there's no escaping the sensation that we've been cast in a role. The question, of course, is how we want to play it.
Matthew Amendt's new The Comedian's Tragedy, a depiction of Aristophanes struggling with his muse in ancient Greece, delves into these tricky and delicate ideas with an assurance that belies the fact that it's his first shot as a playwright (he's most often seen onstage acting at the Guthrie). It also doesn't hurt that this production, an Actor's Equity showcase, boasts a gaggle of sharpshooter talent.
The action opens with the Chorus Leader (Ron Menzel) exhorting the audience to understand that Greek drama rose up through the people as though bursting from the soil itself. He then casts a sympathetic but acute gaze on the crowd and asks, "What need have you of a story?"
Quite a bit, thanks for asking. The narrative here concerns Aris (Amendt), who has penned a wildly successful and scathing comedy. For his troubles, he's pissed off powerful enemies and been labeled a "pervert." Amendt plays his young playwright as dissolute and burned out, the artist doubly burned because he can't even stoke the inner fires that got him singed in the first place.
Socrates (Chris Carlson) and Alcibiades (Patrick Bailey, in shining gold pants and open-necked shirt, a real neon libertine) alternately recruit Aris to the causes of reason and passion, respectively, but Aris is really most interested in the contents of the flask from which he regularly sips. An exception to his inebriated disinterest is his contempt for Xerxica (Tracey Maloney), a saucy Persian girl who expresses her mutual disregard for him on the street by regularly spitting on him.
It's fun and original stuff, and under Bill McCallum's direction the cast finds the serious tones in Amendt's script, while sharing his awareness that, if you're going to dig deep, best provide some laughs along the way. Menzel's role as Chorus Leader goes a long way in this capacity. Speaking directly to the audience, he has a knack for insinuating complicity, then undermining it all with a shrug and a smile.
Smiles are harder for Aris to summon with the arrival of his enemy Cleon (John Riedlinger), fresh off a big military victory against Sparta and generally eager to kick some comedian ass. (He ends up murdering someone close to Aris, throwing our hero into the emotional abyss.) This is ancient Greece, after all, and while the theater scene was excellent, there were also wars, plagues, and an approach to vengeance and violence that was a bit more accepting than ours.
The second act is mostly concerned with justice and redemption, without any sugarcoating. Xerxica urges Aris to write a great tragedy to prove his worth. (They fall in love, natch, and Maloney and Amendt eventually produce a glowing last-night-together scene). Aris complies, even as he bangs his head repeatedly against the very concept; greatness was an essential theme of classical tragedy, after all, and he finds little of it in himself.
Toward the end of the play, a chill-inducing twist recasts everything we've seen so far (I won't spoil it, except to pose this idea: What three questions might you ask your future self, given the chance—that is, how much do you really want to know about how your story turns out?). These fictional characters begin to realize that their immortality is based on eternally repeating their roles. In this bristling and engaging drama, you get the sense that its author has contemplated the flip side as well. We all consider ourselves real, after all, but that requires forgetting that we also wear masks of our own devising. For those who consider fiction as real as anything else, the possible storylines seem truly endless.