Yes, Acosta is fine as Dionysus, and Dick Baker as his slave Xanthias is likable if not particularly mesmerizing. But the story just doesnt seem terribly important. When Dionysus announces that he wants to go to Hades to find a playwright who can alleviate the misery of the modern world, its hard to take his quest seriously. When he decides to meet first with demigod Herakles, and then determines that hed best pretend to be this storied hero, were still waiting for a hook to hang our enjoyment on.
There are lots of tepid jokes and some visual gags (the lion-skin that Dionysus eventually wears comes complete with lions-head), and there are some songs music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that you wouldnt care to hear twice. All in all, the experience feels highly professional, but trivial. Even Greg Bierces superb Greek temple set and Eric Davis witty costumes cant make the show matter.And then, in Act II, everything changes. It all starts when Dionysus goes to Plutos hideaway to fetch George Bernard Shaw. When Pluto leaves the stage and Shaw appears, it turns out to be McGee again, bearded this time, and spewing witticisms with such panache, it might be the Irish genius himself.
But Shaws not the only playwright in Plutos precincts: Shakespeare is also on hand (played with surly self-confidence by Joel Martin), and it may be that Earth needs him more than it does Shaw.
Dionysus proposes a quote-to-quote combat: he will name a subject love, women, men and the two playwrights will offer the best lines they ever uttered thereon. In Aristophanes original, this battle is between Euripides and Aeschylus, but this updated version is a lot more meaningful to us moderns, and the quotes by the Englishman and the Irishman arent only brilliant, theyre touching in a way that nothing else in the evening has been. Finally a winner is declared, and Dionysus heads with him to the surface of earth.
As for us spectators, well, weve been riveted ever since McGee/Pluto first appeared. Heading to our cars, we reflect that maybe freeFall Theatre, with its beautiful new campus and its ambitious season plans, is truly going to live up to its potential.
The theater has a lot going for it, after all. To start with casting: not all the performers are equally charismatic, but everyone of them is abundantly talented. Besides Acosta, Baker, and McGee, theres James Berkley, whos very funny as the impossibly self-sufficient Charon, and Becca McCoy as the sexually voracious Amazon Virilla (the one with the cast-iron bra). Colte Julian is fine as a Herakles obsessed with his own biceps, and Aleshea Harris and Kerry Lynn Foley are tiptop in smaller and ensemble roles. None of the singers has a notably professional voice, but Acosta and McGee have a confident, breezy way with a tune that makes listening to them enjoyable nonetheless. Director Davis whos also freeFalls Founding Artistic Director seems to know everything about staging a comedy, including how to free your actors to improvise when appropriate. The gifted Karla Hartley once again shows her formidable capacity as a lighting designer.
And finally theres the new freeFall stage itself: attractive and modern, with comfortable seating on three sides and the capacity to be rearranged in just about any configuration. I havent been so impressed by a theater space since American Stage opened its new digs in downtown St. Pete. Something very, very good has just opened for business on Central Avenue.
So lets call The Frogs an encouraging start. After all, for much of its second act, its as satisfying as can be.
And lets look forward to more complete satisfactions in future.