Travel now back to the 5th century B.C., to the Theatre of Dionysus in ancient Greece. In the shadow of the Parthenon, a couple strolls out of opening night of a new satirical comedy (with satyrs) by early Greek playwright Aristophanes. Scowling, the woman turns to her date and says, “Plays like that will kill the theater.”
Had to have happened. And yet live theater has survived into the 21st century. Why it goes on and on and on, and why perhaps someday it won’t, is addressed in Undermain Theatre’s world premiere of LA-based playwright Meg Miroshnik’s The Droll (Or, A Stage Play about the END of Theatre). Like its title, the show is weird and long (90 minutes, no intermission, but it feels much longer). And it’s written in a sort of faux-Elizabethan Esperanto that has actors speaking of “gleekings” and “mumblenews.”
Director Blake Hackler did well last season at Undermain with Annie Baker’s weird but definitely wonderful drama The Flick, but he’s let The Droll take itself far too seriously. Remember us, the audience? Don’t shine lights in our eyes. Don’t make the actors talk so fast in that cocked-up Cockney Droog-ese that it shuts us out of the action. If new plays were all this haughty and impenetrable, live theater would be eligible for hospice care.
Miroshnik sets The Droll in an undetermined place and time where there’s no biz in showbiz anymore and the law allows only short, crude sketches full of fart sounds but no full-length plays. Just one theater remains; it’s called “The Red Bull.”
A small, struggling company of actors – Rosey (Justin Locklear in girl-drag), William (Alex Organ), Margaret Killingworth (Rhonda Boutté) and husband James (Jack Greenman) — are approached by Nim Dullyn, a nervous boy wishing to join their troupe. The veteran thespians are reticent to welcome Nim (played by Katy Tye, whose poor diction and high vocal placement garble all dialogue to mush). A government official, “Roundhead” (Anthony L. Ramirez), is sending spies around and they think Nim might be one.
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In this made-up world, as in the real one, The Droll’s actor-characters obsess about wanting to perform Hamlet, with William and James arguing about who would get the lead as they secretly practice “to be or not to be.” Maybe Meg Miroshnik is sending up American theaters’ addiction to Shakespeare or maybe she’s calling for more of it. Not clear.
The playwright does work in a lot of weak references to modern showbiz marketing gimmicks, having Nim carve “figures of action” for sale at performances and suggest casting out “a social net” that could bring in more customers. When a prostitute named Doll (Jenny Ledel, the only bright spot in this overcomplicated pageant) advises the troupe to add “a fire explosion” to appeal to “boys of a bordering age,” Miroshnik is doubling down on her message that live theater may be art but violent movies made for 12-year-olds will trump (pardon the word) Hamlet every time.
Aristophanes wrote plays that mocked the work of his predecessors Socrates and Euripides. Then younger playwrights skewered Aristophanes for writing for the masses and turning out scripts meant to win prizes and good reviews. The last laugh belongs to those old Greek dramatists, of course, whose plays still are done today. The Droll supposes a time when live theater is nearly extinct and then gives its audience too many reasons to see why it could perish.
continues through October 17 at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St. Tickets $15 at 214-747-5515.