Fringe 2009, Waterfront
February 2-21 | Reviewed by Melody Nixon

THE PLAY with what could be the biggest heart in the Fringe opened on Monday for a lucky group of 25 rapt audience members. The Frogs Under the Waterfront is a highly ambitious and creative take on Aristophanes’ BC work, spiced with topical commentary; snippets of poetry, singing and – unbelievably – swimming; and much care and enthusiasm. While the overall working of the piece is patchy in parts, and could be shortened by at least half an hour, the pure novelty of the experience, the courage of the actors (some of whom brave the tepid Wellington waters for nigh on two hours) and the eloquence of the opening and closing scenes make this work truly worthwhile.

Simon Smith imbues his central role as Dionysus with a full dose of God complex, carrying much of the action throughout the play with an improvised wit as well as flippant arrogance. The opening take with Smith on a walkway staring up into the burly shoulders of Heracles (William Arthur McDougall) is completely engaging and possibly offers the most humorous interchanges of the play. Xanthias (Michael Ness) forms a reliably grumbling sidekick, and functions well as an underdog who complicates our sentiments for Dionysus. Ness could perhaps work on his stage presence and find ways to add nuance to his repressed slave state, although he really comes into his own in his more straight-forward impersonation of Heracles.

The brilliant concept at the heart of The Frogs is the water-borne journey that forms the intermission for the play’s three Acts. Alongside Dionysus on his descent into the underworld, the audience is stewarded into paddle boats and lead through the lattice work of Wellington harbour’s underbelly. Somewhere below the entrance to Circa theatre the boats are brought to rest by Amalia Calder as a strangely Cockney ferrywoman (would it be more interesting to have a gruff, blue collar kiwi playing this role?), and lined up to face a muddy stage. This is set (each low tide anew) on the small slopes below the high-tide line. The combined effect of burning torches, creaking docks and lion-skin covered actors cavorting about in the shallows is momentarily breathtaking.

When the mystique and excitement of this setting wears off, and the chill of sitting on the water for thirty minutes starts to wear on viewers, this Act does drag a little too long however. Stephanus’s exposition is snappy, but it still feels like straight exposition at times, too intent on going through, scene by scene, each encounter between Dionysus and the underworld folk, where an abridged version could suffice. The beauty of the piece is in its atmosphere and invention, and strict adherence to the original work doesn’t seem necessary. There are incredibly gutsy performances from the actors. Woody Tuhiwai is insurmountably positive as the water-borne frog and successfully charming as the bumbling slave, and as uncomplicated as her role may be Lucy Edwards seems to fully enjoy cavorting as the wench-Maid. Despite this however, each skit sits chunkily next to the other and in a sense fails to feed in a whole, smoothly moving plot. The ultimate intention of the scene – to bring Dionysus to Euripides, his much esteemed poet – happens quickly and without much build up.

The unexpected shift to the third Act and setting revamps the play’s spirit and transports us to what could be the most-ingenious device of the play – an interpretation of the ‘Chair’ that makes the mind boggle at the logistics involved. Rob Hickey as Aeschylus is superbly suited to adorn the chair as a symbol of intellectual rigour and stead, but also the rigidity of established power. Despite this, young and fool hardy Euripides is played in such a way by Luke Hawker that the final outcome is somewhat satisfying. It is humorous to note that Aeschylus derides Euripides’ use of women in plays; perhaps if this is a serious concern of the cast they could work to beef up the female roles in their own work.

Last but by no means least, vital support comes from Scott Ransom and his inexhaustible energy. There does not seem to be much character differentiation between his Frog and role as Abacus, but he undoubtedly pulls the play along to its end. The sheer marathon of effort Ransom and the rest of the cast pull off is testament to the lengths artists can go to when they are truly committed to a work. If you’re lucky enough to hold a ticket for the rest of the sold out season of The Frogs, Bard Productions-style, be sure to wrap up very warm and take a cushion. Otherwise, there’s no question that Wellington would benefit from a repeat season of this wonderfully fresh, outward-looking and entertaining piece.