This is not a review; just a few notes on the staged reading I saw on Sunday, February 19 at the Getty Villa Auditorium as part of the Villa Theater Lab Series. Sapo (Spanish for toad) is Culture Clash’s modern reworking of Aristophanes’ The Frogs. In the Greek original, briefly, the god Dionysus, in despair over the state of the crumbling Athenian culture, specifically the tragic theatre, travels to Hades to resurrect Euripides. He brings along his brighter, braver slave, Xanthias.
In Culture Clash’s version, the effete Dion (Herbert Siguenza) and Xavier (Ric Salinas), who is clever and resilient, a character that is the direct ancestor of Bugs Bunny, take an arduous journey to Hell after visiting with Hercules (Seth Millwood). Along the way, Richard Montoya, in protean actor mode, takes on several characters, most notably as a swishy Charon, the River Styx boatman, and a radio talk-show host moderating a conversation between rivals Aristophanes (Sean San José, who also directs) and Plato (Mr. Siguenza), broadcast on a radio station very familiar to “Hellay” listeners.
The grist for Culture Clash’s mill has been, and, after thirty-three years of deflating the establishment, remains, the politics and culture of America as filtered through the Chicano experience. Their material gets an update on a daily basis. There was, for example, a sly zinger about the Swedish situation of the day before. The language is rude, lewd and often crude, as they pierce the pomposity and ludicrousness of the current absurdities. It is nothing short of brilliant to use the wisdom and experience of the ancients to deflate the current hot air balloon that is the White House.
A staged reading is by its very nature a rough draft. With scripts in hand, the players try to emulate the speed at which the final product will race. So, sometimes places are lost, some moments lag, and sometimes the pace breaks down entirely. In that case, the terrific improvisers, at the performance I saw, literally and hilariously, rewound the scene to a place where they could pick of the thread of action. And it is the nature of the troupe to make contact with the audience from the stage and, at least at this performance, a foray by the charismatic Richard Montoya out into the house to chat up some individuals, one of whom was my companion. Also contributing greatly to the show are Vaneza “Nesza” Calderon as Neza, Baby Sister and Maid; the fine-singing Andrea Sweeney as Valentine, Adele and Empusa; and the excellent young actor, Sara Haro, as Dionysus Dreamer and Little Girl.
Unusual for a staged reading, this early performance of Sapo has a high degree of production values that emulate a finished product. There were scenic elements, lighting, costuming, a follow spot, and a band Buyepongo (Randy Modesto, Jorge Vallejo, Angel Hernandez, Eduardo Valencia, band leader Edgar Modesto, and musical director Michael Roth at the piano). And, as is almost de rigueur these days, terrific projections enhancing the experience. The commodious 250-seat Getty Villa Auditorium was sold out and the audience response was enthusiastic.
The Villa Theater Lab is to be commended for nurturing new works. Each fall, they bring ancient tragedies and comedies to the Getty’s gorgeous Roman theatre. One of the first shows I reviewed upon arriving in Southern California after decades of acting, writing and reviewing in the Bay Area, was the terrific Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, by Luis Alfaro (https://paulmyrvoldstheatrenotes.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/mojada-a-medea-in-los-angeles-at-the-getty-villa/).
I look forward to seeing Sapo as a finished, yet continually evolving production in the not-to-distant future.