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CONTEMPORARY CLOUD BURSTS: The Clouds Band – (left to right) Benjamin Gerut, Chuck Staab, John Norwood – accompanies the Greek chorus of Cloudettes in Theatre Intime's updated production of Aristophanes' 423 BC comedy "Clouds," currently playing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.
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Theatre Intime Reaches Back 24 Centuries to Up-Date "Clouds," Aristophanes' Spoof of Philosophers, Socrates and Society

Donald Gilpin

Believing it is the playwright's duty "to teach the city what is best," Aristophanes wrote Clouds to satirize Socrates and other philosophers for their manipulations of the truth through specious reasoning and their reliance on logic and science to explain the mysteries of the world. According to legend, Socrates stood up at the first performance of Clouds at the Athenian Dionysiac Festival in 423 B.C. so that the spectators could compare him with his character depicted on stage.

Encountering Socrates in the audience is one thing Theatre Intime, currently producing Clouds at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, won't have to worry about, but there are other daunting challenges.

The ambitious Intime company, under the direction of sophomore Mark Spatt, has relied on a lively modern translation (1991) by Peter Meineck, added a rock band accompaniment and mixed in some clever contemporary costuming. The twelve-member undergraduate troupe achieves several noteworthy individual performances, some hilarious moments and some piercingly timeless lampoons of intellectuals and their pretensions.

But despite the best efforts of cast and design teams, this production does not consistently succeed in breathing life into Aristophanes' largely plotless, static and somewhat dated comedy. The promising device of the Clouds Band on stage (Benjamin Gerut on guitar and vocals, John Norwood on bass and Chuck Staab on drums) unfortunately produces the opposite of its intended effect: slowing down the pace and causing the action to languish, rather than contributing an invigorating injection of adrenalin to the proceedings. A music director would be helpful to modulate the volume of the drums so that the audience could hear the song lyrics.

Clouds is the story of Strepsiades (Andy Hoover), a simple man whose son Pheidippides (Michael Stout) has run him into heavy debts through his profligate life style. Strepsiades wastes no time in seeking out a school run by Socrates (Andy Brown) that teaches the arts of circumlocution, vacuous verbiage, and unjust logic that can "reason down all justice" and help a man to talk his way out of paying his debts. Strepsiades, and later his son, enter the school, and with the help of the immortal Clouds – in this case the four charming, graceful Cloudettes (Lauren Bush, Tawny Chritton, Elizabeth Looke-Stewart and Charlotte Weiskittel), clad in white dresses – Socrates attempts to tutor the dim-witted father and son.

In place of significant plot, beyond the frustrated Strepsiades' battles with his son and Socrates' struggles with the education of the comical pair, Clouds offers the formal structure of classical Greek drama, in which the prologos presents the initial conflict, followed by the parodos as the chorus enters, the parabasis as the chorus – and the character of Aristophanes himself here – comes forward to address the audience directly, and the agon, where the character of Superior Argument (Jonathan Miller) debates with Inferior Argument (Jacob Savage).

The comedy here is most effective at its most basic, silly and coarse. Penis and fart jokes – from farting fleas to elaborate intellectual explanations of thunder and lightning as the farting of clouds – seem to have lost none of their appeal over the twenty-four centuries since they entertained Athenian audiences!

Mr. Hoover's Strepsiades, who has just woken up at the start of the play and looks a little dazed throughout the evening in his wading boots and a red down vest over a plaid toga, handles the low comedy with dry wit and appropriately low-key poise. (He is less effective when called upon to sing.) Mr. Brown provides an articulate foil as the renowned Socrates and skillfully handles the linguistic banter and comic timing.

Mr. Miller, attired in toga, with laurel wreath and orange and black Princeton bow tie, is superbly clear and comical in the climactic debate, and Mr. Savage provides a worthy counterpart, triumphing handily, of course, as the Inferior Argument. Mr. Savage also delivers a nicely acerbic moment earlier in the play when he takes on the role of the playwright himself to assist the chorus in chastising the audience for its numerous transgressions.

The Cloudettes contribute an air of ethereal elegance with their innocent appeal and well-coordinated movement, but they also deftly deliver some devastating barbs to both the audience and protagonists. Arthur Burkle, Eric Brownell, and Lindsey Locks lend creditable support in multiple roles, and Mr. Stout's preppie, loutish Pheidippides, attired in his toga over a cardigan and sports shirt, is sporadically amusing.

Emmet Truxes' stylish white unit set provides the requisite Greek columns and roof for setting the action, and Rik Aspinall's dramatic, colorful lighting complements both the settings of the play and the rock music of the Clouds Band.

As Mr. Spatt states in his Director's Note, "humor is timeless," but that is true only of some humor, which is why Greek tragedies with their focus on the eternal verities of human longing, human suffering, human love and loss, generally achieve more success, more contemporary productions and need less updating than the ancient comedies. Comedy, by its nature, focuses more on local problems, the peculiarities of a particular society. Mr. Spatt and his Intime troupe have taken on a risky but worthy enterprise, mounted an intermittently entertaining production, and – especially when they rein in the Clouds Band – deliver some brilliant Aristophanic satire.

Clouds runs Thursday through Saturday, February 26-28, at 8 p.m. and also at 2 p.m. on February 28, on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org.

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