According to the Greek war god Ares (John Mercer), "Gods don't make fart jokes." Maybe he should rethink that one. The current state of the world could only be devised by a higher power with a deep interest in toilet humor.
In The Road to Hades, a musical making its world premiere in Berkeley's John Hinkel Park, playwright Jeff Raz contends that fart jokes can be a potent form of social and political critique. Shit is, after all, the great equalizer. Raz's inspiration here is Aristophanes, who made a career out of criticizing — through comic scatology — Greece's decades-long involvement in the Peloponnesian War.
Aristophanes is more than just an inspiration for the show — he's one of its central characters. The funny thing about Aristophanes, though, is that his plays were funny. The Road to Hades, unfortunately, is not. Part of Shotgun Players' ambitious season of new plays, the show stands as a major disappointment from a company known for memorable, daring fare. Raz and his collaborators' message is a noble and important one. But political humor should be at least as humorous as it is political, and here the balance is way off.
At least the premise is clever. We begin in Hades, where Aristophanes (Raz) has been languishing for 2,397 years. "Here in Hades you can't make anything new," he tells us. As a result, he spends eternity "thinking about writing a new play."
Enter Ares, accompanied by Hermes (Ryan O'Donnell), messenger to the gods. It seems that Olympus is on the hunt for a new god of peace, because humans are as warlike as ever. "We gods are getting a little past our expiration date," Hermes explains. Which gets Aristophanes thinking: What if the gods chose him to serve as the god of peace? Didn't he advocate against war in comedies like Lysistrata and The Acharnians? And if he became god of peace, he could get the hell out of Hades — and maybe even have a chance to write more plays.
That's a fine setup, but Raz and his collaborators don't go anywhere with it. They introduce Aphrodite (Velina Brown) as a competitor for the peace-god title, but that conflict never materializes in a way that makes narrative or even satirical sense. The troupe performs snippets from several of Aristophanes' plays, but director Sabrina Klein doesn't create a clear distinction between the play we're watching and the plays-within-the-play. And despite Raz's deep background in clowning with the likes of Cirque du Soleil and the Pickle Family Circus, he and Klein fail to fill the stage with nearly enough funny clowning business. It doesn't help that the atonal songs by Johannes Mager make a limited impression. Just about every aspect of the production is oddly inert.
As is often the case with Bay Area political theater, The Road to Hades suffers from a lack of genuine subversion. If you've just moved here from Oklahoma, you might find its politics refreshing, but surely local audiences don't need another play insisting that they believe what they've believed for years. There's nothing transgressive about telling a North Berkeley audience that war is wrongheaded, and there's nothing risky about targeting Wal-Mart in a critique of consumerism. The show's clichés coincide with the audience's assumptions. If sun-dappled theatergoers can keep contentedly eating their Berkeley Bowl fare in the midst of a political screed, then somebody is playing it way too safe. Just once, I'd like to see a political play that so offends conventional local sensibilities that people gather up their hemp-woven picnic blankets and march off in disgust.
Nothing so wonderful happened during a recent Sunday afternoon performance of The Road to Hades. Nobody registered anger, just acquiescence. At one point, the guy in front of me started furtively checking his Droid for the latest updates on the Huffington Post.
According to the final song in the show, "We're all gonna die or else laugh for peace." That sounds like a sentence produced by Google Translate, but in any case the statement is patently false. We're all going to die whether or not we laugh, and "laugh[ing] for peace," whatever that means, isn't the only viable alternative to despair. Take, for instance, The Road to Hades — vivid proof that sometimes peacemongering isn't funny at all.