The 2016 Election Is Literally Aristophanes’ Knights

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An actor portrays Donald Trump in Aristophanes' Knights
An actor portrays Donald Trump in Aristophanes' Knights

Making Athens great again

As this election gets more and more vitriolic, it can be easy to gloss over the messy politics of elections before, worrying that this is the worst election ever. The Ancient Theater Group showed how wrong this conception is with their modern adaptation of Aristophanes The Knights, set in the 2016 election. Senior Staff Writer Ross Chapman reviewed the production. 

History repeats itself, some times more exactly than others. But how similar can 424 BCE be to 2016? If hats reading “Make Athens Great Again” prove anything, very similar. The Ancient Theater Group shows us just how precisely the present can look like the past with a hauntingly accurate modern depiction of The Knights by Aristophanes. The trademark red hats and shirts of the Trump presidential campaign were co-opted in the Glicker-Millstein Theatre yesterday night, and will continue to be tonight and tomorrow in this satirical showing.

Director Brittany Johnson, previously responsible for producing another modernization of Aristophanes in 2014 at Barnard called #CLOUD$, recognizes the difficulties of making old stories relatable and contemporary. “I have been lucky, however,” she writes in her director’s note, “as this year’s primaries unnervingly by conveniently mimicked Knights’ plot progression.” Johnson doesn’t exaggerate here, as the play centers upon a man without political experience usurping a corrupt, longtime politician with the aid of secret, hidden documents. Coupled with the fact that Cleon, the antagonist, sounds a lot like Clinton, this production was a guaranteed success from the start.

The production closely follows the plot and humor of Aristophones’ original production. From a story perspective, the eponymous knights rallying against Kleon are played by the rejected scrap heap of Republican presidential candidates, led by Chris Christie and Ben Carson. The two quickly hit it off as a comic duo of buffoons, lamenting the horrible treatment they’ve received from a cruel mistress, “The People.” While Donald Trump and Hillary Kleon receive top billing, Christie and Carson, played by Shann Smith and Korey Wilson, steal the show from the beginning. Their symmetrical comedy, a pair of comics with no straight man, had the tough task of warming up the audience for the main event, and did so with equal parts vulgarity and foolishness.

The main characters of Trump and Kleon delivered most of their lines as insults towards each other. Aaron Moore captured Donald Trump’s circular, improvisatory speaking style, even if the references to certain Trumpisms felt overdone by the end of the show (e.g. “I have the best brain”). Talia Varonos-Pavlopoulos depicted Hillary Kleon in a more ambivalent way than Aristophanes would have. Kleon is never mentioned by name in the original drama, but refers to a Greek politician who persecuted Aristophanes for slander. As such, Kleon’s original role is comic in how evil it is, and how all evils of the world can be contributed to him. Hillary Kleon’s gentler appearance speaks to the sidesteps that had to be made in order to avoid making Donald Trump the protagonist of a play put on in the Diana Center.

The modernization process didn’t end with an updating of characters. The script drew upon current jokes, and was updated recently enough to include references to Monday’s presidential debates. The scenes in which the chorus sings were replaced by classic rock covers, which Johnson did in frustration with the fact that “the musical vocabulary of rebellion has been recently co-opted against its own will to help shape the narratives of people who are empirically lame.” Thus, the chorus happily belted to Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker,” “you’re the right kind of sinner // for a neoliberal fantasy.” When individual chorus members sang, they often couldn’t overcome the volume of the karaoke track and the size of the room, which made for some incomprehensible lyrics. The ensemble sound and choreography, however, captured the absurd nature of the political happenings onstage, and were carried by Lina Nania’s (Carly Fiorina’s) harmonies.

As humorous and valuable as the concept of modernizing Knights was, the play dragged on during its final acts. Following the theft of Kleon’s private emails, the strongest connections between 2016 and 424 BCE become less impactful, and the novelty and humor of the play’s concept eventually wears off. Without that Greek veneer, the play occasionally dips from satirical into heavy-handed. The production relies too heavily on the caricatured portrayal of the Republican Party and makes references to the Republican primary (e.g. “the pyramids stored grain”) that have fallen out of relevancy. The idea of adapting Knights to the current election may have played out better in a shorter format that didn’t need to mock up three whole presidential debates.

Still, the connection between these two political situations is undeniably eerie, an element of the show played perfectly by the cast and crew. I couldn’t help but indulge in the “Make Athens Great Again” merchandise for sale at the ticket table. It connected Trump’s supposedly unprecedented run at power to a fictional demagogue 2400 years. Frustration with those entrenched in power, this production showed, is nothing new. But my uneasy feeling with the show’s “triumphant” conclusion made me fear even more the tyranny of a demagogue.

A sausage-seller changing Athens via the event’s Facebook page

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