Theater Review: freeFall's Frogs doesn't take off till the second act, but the company's new space is a hit all the way

Yes, Acosta is fine as Dionysus, and Dick Baker as his slave Xanthias is likable if not particularly mesmerizing. But the story just doesn’t 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, it’s hard to take his quest seriously. When he decides to meet first with demigod Herakles, and then determines that he’d best pretend to be this storied hero, we’re 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 lion’s-head), and there are some songs — music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — that you wouldn’t care to hear twice. All in all, the experience feels highly professional, but trivial. Even Greg Bierce’s superb Greek temple set and Eric Davis’ witty costumes can’t make the show matter.And then, in Act II, everything changes. It all starts when Dionysus goes to Pluto’s 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 Shaw’s not the only playwright in Pluto’s 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 aren’t only brilliant, they’re 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, we’ve 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, there’s James Berkley, who’s 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 – who’s also freeFall’s 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 there’s 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 haven’t 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 let’s call The Frogs an encouraging start. After all, for much of its second act, it’s as satisfying as can be.

And let’s look forward to more complete satisfactions in future.

About a third of the way into Act II of The Frogs, Matthew McGee makes his first appearance, and the evening’s comedy finally blossoms.

Up until that moment, this freeFall Theatre production — the first in its new permanent home — has been pleasant and mildly funny, but not otherwise very remarkable. Then McGee appears as Pluto, Gay King of the Underworld, and he’s a campy, self-parodying delight. Now, central character Dionysus — played with real brio in both acts by Jorge Acosta — has a worthy counterpart, and the play — much adapted by Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane from the original by Aristophanes — begins to offer some rich humor interspersed with serious reflections. Talk about a strong finish — for its last 40 minutes or so, The Frogs is smart, sharp and splendid.

It isn’t so at the start.

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