Adapted by the Magis Theatre Company
Music by Elizabeth Swados, Lyrics by George Drance & the company, arrangements by Uriel Frazier and Jeonghum Arron Kim
Directed by George Drance
(as part of the Seventeenth Annual New York International Fringe Festival)
August 16-21, 2013
Flamboyan Theater at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, NYC
Worshipping wealth might not be so bad if money both talked and was capable of listening. That’s one satirical lesson of Aristophanes’ Plutus, God of Wealth, premiering 2,400 years ago and playing (and yes, selling out) at the NY Fringe Festival in a clever new adaptation by the members of the Magis Theatre Company as Occupy Olympus.
Plutus, (wait for it) God of Wealth, has been blinded by a jealous Zeus, and local Grecian businessman Chremylus decides that if he can go to some alternative mystical authority to get the god’s vision back, Plutus will stop directing riches to the idle and predatory and away from the righteous and hardworking.
The story is told in advancing vignettes and witty, rhythmic musical set pieces, most performed communally and set squarely in the bardic, ritual tradition, in this case situated ironically somewhere between HAIR and corporate teambuilding exercises.
Plutus’ divine redistribution, in the hands of flawed humans, becomes a kind of worship-speculation bubble, with acolytes taking their business from Zeus to Plutus but abusing their newfound privilege just as badly as their predecessors.
Antiquity and the recent past keep sliding into each other as the persistent imbalances of Aristophanes’ time are pointed up, topical jokes (and no-jokes) about our modern Olympian elites are injected, and the removal of Plutus’ favor is floated as being as good an explanation as any for the financial crash of 2008 (though we know that in real life the scales never got balanced, even for a while).
The ensemble is skilled at comic wordplay and living-cartoon body language. The basking bonhomie of George Drance as Plutus is irresistible, a portrait of a celestial sugar-daddy who personifies well-being that he has bought but not earned. Erika Iverson is a master chef of farce in several roles, especially the righteous raucousness of Penia, Goddess of Poverty, self-servingly declaiming her right to exist as a reverse-incentive for the poor. Ronalda Nicholas, as a deposed but defiant plutocrat (heh) lecturing the recently-deprived that she’s just switched places with, chillingly and charismatically stops the show in a Rove-esque psychobabble soliloquy of market-force mysticism that reminds us of the cults of power displacing our official gods and our better angels then and now. Lindsay Lark is captivating as a struggling artist/barista and self-appointed chorus of one, and an overstimulated insider trader; Sajeev Pillai is hilarious and pointed as her stock-market contact and a demoralized, downsized Hermes.
The persistent relevance of this play is good for Aristophanes and bad for America — but it has its limits. Because things do change: they get worse. Or, sometimes, our way of thinking about them gets smarter. I’m not sure that Aristophanes’ worldview could account for the idea of some forms of provisional, ephemeral wealth actually being good for us (like mortgages to people who aren’t yet comfortable but weren’t picked to default on them), or conceive of an intermediate stratum of society that could both keep the elite reigned in and the rest of us responsible (like, say, an actual regulatory system).
Still, though, it’s true we’ve never gotten it all the way right. With not a good-old-day to be found, Occupy Olympus reminds us, dauntingly, hopefully, that the Golden Age is something we’re still saving up for.