Listen, wouldn’t you think that a musical that could produce lyrics that rhyme “prodigious, religious, prestigious and litigious” would be a show you’d like to see? Well, yes and no. Other than a few good lyrics, a leading actor with a marvelous voice, and a cast with the energy of a lightning bolt, “The Wasps” doesn’t have a whole lot more going for it.
You see, long before there were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in America, there were WASPS in Greece. They were citizen jurors known for their “stinging” verdicts. (Thus, they were called “wasps.” Get it?) And in 422 B.C. the playwright Aristophanes wrote a satirical play about them that apparently had his contemporaries rolling in the aisles of the amphitheatre. Unfortunately, 2,500-year-old jokes don’t hold up very well. Or maybe they were lost in translation.
At any rate, playwright, composer, and director Meryl Friedman has made a valiant effort to update all the silliness and shtick for a modern audience. Originally commissioned and presented by The Getty Villa in Malibu for their Villa Theater Lab Series, the play has since been reworked (and reworked and reworked). This version is, apparently, Version 217. Or thereabouts. But the verdict is: it needs work.
The current plot, as in the original, revolves around an aristocratic juror (Peter Van Norden, he of the big beautiful voice) whose son (Albert Meijer) thinks it’s time for him to retire. But the Old Man doesn’t want to. And that’s about it.
Around this meager plot is woven a play within a play, in which an imperious Manager and Chorus Leader (Mark Doerr) attempts to bully the players into hurrying up. The players, three jurors and a slave, (John Apicella, Steve Totland, Hubert Hodgin and Robert Alan Beuth) continue to derail the action, however, with appeals to the audience and arguments with each other. They chase each other around the stage, break into song, change costumes, and make a tremendous amount of indiscriminate noise. At one point (a high point, actually) they do a respectable facsimile of Zorba’s dance, which then degenerates into a Jewish wedding dance (chair in the air, if you please), which then segues into a Russian soldier’s squat dance.
The humor is at the level of knock knock jokes and silly faces, the music is derivative and not very memorable, and the instruments by which it is delivered include a piano, kazoos, and a barbershop septet.
There is also, finally, a trial in which a cat is tried for stealing a hunk of cheese (don’t ask!)
To be fair, much of the audience seemed to love the production. There was a lot of laughter to encourage the players. But as far as I’m concerned, Aristophanes is highly overrated. And “The Wasps” still needs work. A LOT of work!
Just call me an old Groucho.
“The Wasps” will continue at The Lost Studio Theatre, 130 S. La Brea Ave. in Los Angeles Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through July 26. Call (800) 838-3006 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.