by ED RAMPELL
[dropcap]Culture[/dropcap] Clash is just wild about Ari — Aristophanes, that is. Sapo (which means “Frogs” in Spanish) is the comedy trio’s latest send-up of the Greek playwright, who wrote The Frogs around 405 BCE. More recently, in 1998, Culture Clash (with co-writer John Glore) riffed on Aristophanes’ The Birds at South Coast Repertory and Peace at the Getty Villa in 2009.
Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Sigüenza’s Sapo is full of Culture Clash’s trademark wisecracks, asides, jibes and non-sequiturs — with topical references to Trump, Steve Bannon, Vladimir “Puto,” while also tossing in Al Jolson, the El Monte Swap Meet, Che Guevara, Carrie Fisher, and L.A. dramatist Evelina Fernández, whose La Olla updated Roman bard Plautus’ 190 B.C. play for LATC last year. In the spirit of massive copyright infringement being the sincerest form of flattery, even Kermit the Frog (Edgar Modesto) has a cameo.
Despite all that, Sapo actually has a plot. The Greek god of wine, fertility and theater — Dionysus — is shortened to Dion, the rocker who sang the 1961 hit “The Wanderer.” As in the original, Sapo depicts the wandering of Dion (Sigüenza) and Xavier (called Xanthias in The Frogs, played by Salinas) to Hades to bring Greece’s best poet/playwrights back to life in order to, as Montoya puts it, “soothe the crumbling empire.” This journey, fraught with peril, alludes to Trump’s immigration crackdowns.
“Sapo plays with the time/space continuum. It’s set in Greece and America… 1970s’ and contemporary America, and in classical Athenian civilization,” said Montoya, interviewed by phone at Getty Villa between Sapo rehearsals:
“They can’t get into hell,” Montoya explains, “because there’s a travel ban. No one can cross the border, even into hell — it has its parallels to the over-the-top ridiculousness we’re finding ourselves in now… If you’re a Dreamer or undocumented person, or gay or lesbian, or a Muslim or person of color, the current state of where we’re going seems hellish… If you’re stuck in an airport terminal…72 hours, as some people recently were, it was particularly hellish for them. Where are we going? Are we heading towards a series of wars? Some of us woke up the day after the [presidential] election with a sense of dread.”
Montoya, who plays multiple roles in this 90-minute one-acter performed sans intermission, describes Culture Clash as “Chicano; we’re American-born… [a] satirical performance troupe around since 1984. We have a body of work from serious plays at the Mark Taper Forum [2003’s Chavez Ravine] to ripped-from-the-headlines satire… Underneath our work is a sense of timeliness, urgency, and even death. I spent the entire summer at the border near Tucson and Nogales…We’re trying to take back the town hall, which has been hijacked… it’s a place where we can come and discuss these issues screaming across the news cycle.”
While this may all sound extremely serious, the script itself comes marbled with levity, delivering the theatrical goods (and gods) with sometimes bawdy slapstick. (You may want to leave the kiddies at home.)
“The Greek plays we’ve adapted allow us to dip into ancient texts and look at the parallels,” Montoya adds. “Aristophanes was just as witty as any TV showrunner today; a pretty modern, smart guy with a sharp knife, who could make mincemeat out of his competition, which included Plato and Sophocles. The people loved him — he was a comic writer of the people and very political… These old Greek plays are confusing; there’s a lot of language that’s baroque and we have to update it for our version.”
In The Frogs, the ancient dramatists Aeschylus and Euripides face off against each other in Hades. In what may sound like a poetry slam, Sapo’s dueling scribes are Plato and Aristophanes [Sean San Jose], who “debate classical theater versus Hamilton, academia versus non-academia… We’re on the side of the more modern of the two,” Montoya explains. Sapo’s spoken word dispute is moderated by Montoya, parodying Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm literary radio show.
What is the significance of the actual frogs, who appear only briefly in Aristophanes’ comedy? “In the 1970s, there was a band called Sapo, and our house band [Buyepongo] are the frogs, [which are also] symbols of transformation — such as when a princess kisses a frog, turning him into a prince,” Montoya adds. In this case, the live band also plays the role of the Greek chorus. It remains to be seen if Sapo’s frogs have human accents.
SAPO at the Getty Villa, playing February 17, 18 and 19.