The JHU Theatre Department’s Fall 2023 production was the ancient Greek comedy The Clouds by Aristophanes, with performances held Nov. 9, 11 and 12 in the Merrick Barn. Originally a massive flop for the Grecian playwright (placing third in a festival with three submissions), The Clouds has stood the test of time for its references to Socrates and The School of Athens, as well as its commentary on the baseness of sophistry, an ancient method of argumentation that favors intellectual trickery over moral principle.
The JHU Theatre performance quite openly advertised itself as an “adaptation.” There are two main approaches when directing a play of such antiquity, which is made up of ancient figures and institutions (namely, Socrates and the School of Athens, or what this production calls “The Thinkery”). The first approach is to try to stay as true as possible to the original and reflect the times of the author. The second approach, and the approach that director Gerrad Alex Taylor and producer Abraham Stoll took by the reins, is to reflect the current times and apply the original message to current societal issues.
In fact, there seemed to be more adapted lines in this performance than original ones. The angsty teenager Pheidippides (Benjamin Roberts) adopted a very contemporary dialect, with such phrases as “Brah, you buggin’!” and “You cappin’!” He also flaunted his “fit” to his old, worn-out father, Strepsiades (Audrey Douglas), and referenced games for his X-rocks (Xbox) and stonestation (Playstation). Strepsiades used an electronic tablet to check his financial debt, and the chorus used the same tablet to record Strepsiades as he beat his son, mimicking the modern phenomenon of World Star Hip Hop fight videos.
Most references were also specific to the Homewood Campus. “The Thinkery” is modeled after Hopkins and riffs on all of the bizarre aspects of the University from an undergraduate student’s perspective. In one scene, a student (Kathy Yella) shows Strepsiades the da Vinci Research Kit, a software and electronics kit designed at Hopkins by Russell Taylor and Peter Kazanzides which aids in robotic surgery using the da Vinci Surgical System. Cleverly, the student referenced the visual publicity video by Edward Hospital, which showed the robot arm of a da Vinci machine performing “surgery” on a grape, an inclusion that fit well into the grape and wine-loving land of ancient Greece. The student also referenced “HopCafe,” ”FFC” and President Ron Daniels during the same tour.
When I talked with director Gerrad Alex Taylor after the show, he emphasized their adaptive approach.
“The whole show is an adaptation,” Taylor said in an interview with The News-Letter. “We started with a translation of the Greek play, and then myself, the six actors in the cast, our producer Abraham Stoll and our dramaturg Earl Wu talked about examples of the play we saw on campus. All the stories and the situations are coming directly from the creative team.”
The decision to place an ancient comedy in the very location and current time of its performance is not without its risk. Oftentimes, when someone solely writes about their immediate surroundings and the objects of their day-to-day life, not only can it come across as self-possessed, but it can also seem as if the writer is purposefully catering to the audience to the point of obsequiousness. As an undergraduate student of Hopkins myself, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t rolled my eyes at an offhand reference to Freshman Quad or students majoring in BME (Biomedical Engineering).
Thankfully, the characters pushed past these criticisms with their self-awareness. The student who showed Strepsiades around The Thinkery also gives a long speech that explained the approach of the play, namely the inclusion of Hopkins references in a “vague enough way” to still apply to the source material of the script. In another added scene, Aristophanes (Kathy Yella) talked directly to the audience about the recent failure of the play at a festival, with a long pink dildo strapped to his waist, further explaining why the performance was riddled with these references. Brechtian elements such as this elevated the performance and avoided the pitfalls of cliche.
In this scene I mentioned, in which Aristophanes speaks on the rhetoric of the play’s adaptations, there was a strong focus on the construction which has segregated the Merrick Barn and, effectively, the Theatre Arts & Studies offices and classroom. Referencing this and other Hopkins issues, Aristophanes argues that the play will spread awareness, saying, “We’ll make them listen.”
As of this semester, the Theatre Arts & Studies Department moved their offices and classroom out of the Merrick Barn into Krieger Hall in order to avoid the daily nuisances of the nearby construction. The construction site for the new Hopkins Student Center has expanded this semester, blocking access to the Merrick Barn from the side closest to Charles Street, or in other words, the most logical and straightforward entrance. As a result, the Theatre Department has been displaced from the rest of campus.
Commentary on this construction, especially the effect it has had on student-run theater companies on campus, was a main focus of the performance, both through representations of The Thinkery’s own construction sites and more direct comments in Aristophanes’ speech. The decision to perform in Merrick Barn was obviously purposeful, necessarily confronting spectators with the looming construction of the Hopkins Student Center, wire fences quite literally encasing the Barn. In our discussion, Taylor confirmed the charged nature of the commentary.
“In the spring, when we were thinking about what we wanted to do, we knew that the Theatre Department was being displaced because of all the construction that was happening, and so we wanted to do something that spoke to what [it] feels like is happening to the arts on campus,“ he said. “The Film Studies department has been pushed off campus, Visual Arts has been pushed off campus and it feels like theater is becoming smaller and a bit less significant.”
Aside from the commentary, visual elements like the cotton-covered blankets covering the ceiling lights, smoke emanating from the top of the stage as Strepsiades set The Thinkery ablaze and red lighting for the more abstract, metaphorical scenes all added another layer of polish to an already highly dense and entertaining performance. Certain physical gags, like Socrates (Jiaming He) falling from a pillar and the many fights that showed Strepsiades’ cruelty and Socrates’ physical infirmity due to age, were hilarious and added another dynamic layer to a word-heavy script, as well.
One particular scene has stuck with me since I saw the show this past Thursday: the abstract representation of the “better” and “worse” argument (also called the “just” and the “unjust” cause in certain translations). It was originally used in reference to the bizarre backward purpose of sophistry, but was used in this performance for the purpose of commenting on conservative perspectives versus the more chaotic, enraged methods of argumentation by the youth. The scene was set up as a graduation speech, playing on the online meme of the student with the “worst grades” at a high school getting time to speak alongside the valedictorian.
The “better argument” (Gurtejan Swaich), or valedictorian, argued for the conservative principles of justice and personal responsibility. Though bragging about his argumentative prowess before the debate, the “worse argument’s” (Darrel La) speech mainly consisted of insults targeting the “better argument’s” age and stubborn attitude to change, all while flaunting his wealth.
I asked Taylor about this scene in particular because of its weight and resonance to our times, despite its antiquity.
“We’re living in a society now where the worse argument and the better argument are constantly at odds with one another,” he explained. “How do we make choices that are morally responsible, and how do we identify corruption? And sometimes, how are we forced to play the game of making the bad argument so that we can stay ahead in our own lives? It’s a very challenging idea that we come across all the time nowadays.”
When confronted with difficult questions, sometimes the best and most available answer is to confront our conflicting values through art, bringing attention to corruption and the voiceless by constantly adapting the commentary of past times to our own present worries. The JHU Theatre Department’s performance of The Clouds is a refreshing reminder of the powerful capabilities of adaptation, and it reminds us of the importance of art in subverting the traditional values that overlook the individual.