Menander was a Greek playwright, active in Athens toward the end of the third century. He wrote what was called "New Comedy" -- as distinguished from the plays of earlier writers such as Aristophanes. Rarely does one come across Menander nowadays, except in footnotes to Shakespeare or other classic authors, who mined his plays for plots. Given both Menander's status and obscurity, the chance to see Dyskolos, his only complete surviving text, was not an occasion to miss.
The play is currently on the boards at Tulane, courtesy of an adventurous troupe called Evolving Door Productions. Under Sarah Clifford's direction, 13 young, enthusiastic actors bring to life the romantic intrigues of a toga-clad urban middle class from long ago. In a nod to Menander's choral interludes, a grunge trio wails away stridently, while two disco-nymphs gyrate for all they're worth -- though what this adds to the otherwise straightforward ancient-world staging eludes me.
Dyskolos is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. What puzzled me, however, was not simply that I didn't find it funny, but that I couldn't imagine how it ever could be funny.
I got a gleam of understanding, however, the very next night when I visited 735 Bourbon St. (a location the dissolute codgers among us will remember as Lucky Pierre's, now called the 735 Club). There, the always well-meaning Grenadine McGunkle is trying yet again to bring good cheer to the squalid precincts of The Everlasting Arms Motor Park in the third edition of Running With Scissors' annual Christmas romp, Grenadine McGunkle's Double-Wide Christmas. All the usual suspects are present: our hostess, Grenadine (Dorian Rush), an eternally beleaguered housewife; Tater (Flynn De Marco), her hoodlum son; Mr. Stouge (Jim Jeske), a crotchety neighbor; Loretta (Bianca Del Rio), an overly fertile chain-smoker; Sally Ann (Debbie Davis), an unwed beauty-pageant mom; Sierra-Brittany (Jason Toups), her plucky, but doomed pageant daughter; Gladys Finklestein (Brian Peterson), a meshuganah neighbor; and Lisbon Hyatt (Ruthann Blake), an actress, heiress and accidental guest. Not to mention Earl McGunkle, the world's most deadbeat husband (who is always played by none other than himself, for reasons that will be obvious to all who have the good fortune to see the show).
Now, with this list of characters in mind, read what the Cambridge Guide to World Theatre says about Menander: "There is a limited range of stock character-types -- stern fathers, lovesick youths, innocent girls, worldly courtesans, fawning parasites, cunning slaves, clownish cooks and so forth -- though there is room for variations within each type and the dramatists can play with the expectations which the types create."
The problem with Menander -- for us -- is that we have no real sense of the types, no appreciation of the variations and no expectations that can be surprised. And by us, I mean both the audience and the actors.
Grenadine McGunkle's Double-Wide Christmas, on the other hand, is enjoyable precisely because of our knowledge of the types and the hilarious elaborations and surprises writers Richard Read, Flynn De Marco and Dorian Rush have throw into the works. I have no idea what a spectator 2,000 years from now would make of a pregnant, chain-smoking welfare mom with a tot glued perpetually to her bosom and a way with words that would make a gansta blush. But to us, she's a misanthropic joy -- all the more so, since (like the hopeless pageant hopeful and the Jewish mahjong maven) she is a he.
Menander has another disadvantage. His Latin dialogue may be witty, incisive and vernacular, but the competent-enough verse translation at Tulane has no comic bite. Whereas, from Grenadine's first entrance (when she growls, "Where is that juvenile delinquent that sprung from my loins?") we know language is going to part of the fun.
The show resembles Christmases of double-wide past, with assorted changes -- like variations on a theme. The mysterious Cherry Flavored Body Butter once again appears, though the mailman who brings it doesn't. Once again, there are a dozen songs. Most are traditional yuletide ditties with new lyrics; all are catchy, and all appropriately askew.
Running With Scissors has matured into an impressively accomplished ensemble of zanies, and the characters in the trailer park seem custom fit to each performer. If the dialogue wasn't so crisp, you would think they were improvising.
Once again, Read and De Marco directed. Roy Haylock gets credit for the hilarious duds and (with an assist from Fifi Mahoney's) the sky-high hair.
Nobody fractures the yuletide spirit quite like Grenadine, bless her cotton-pickin' heart. She's a local classic.
- Sky-high fun: Loretta (Bianca Del Rio) works Grenadine (Dorian Rush) into a tizzy in Running With Scissors' Grenadine McGunkle's Double- Wide Christmas, now at the 735 Club.