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Frogs on bikes wearing Tom Ford & saving Athens: A new take on Greek extravaganza, The Dionysia

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Corinne Green, from left, Natalie Brown, Kristen Rodgers, Karina Hernandez, Simon Tice, Kimberly Holiday-Coleman and Michiko McMahon from the University of Houston's production of The Frogs Photo by Anthony Rathbun
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From the University of Houston's The Frogs, Cory Kendrick, from left Gaius Jones, John Harvey and Tyson Woolman Photo by Anthony Rathbun
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Performance photo of City Council Meeting, to premiere in Houston at Diverseworks in November Photo by Aaron Landsman
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It's spring, you know what that means: The city hands its keys over to Dionysus, or, OK, technically, John Harvey, playwright and director of University of Houston’s Center for Creative Work, based in the Honors College

Every April, I look forward to Harvey's ancient Greek extravaganza, the Dionysia. I like that it's open to all UH students regardless of their major, that it happens all over the city, and that it brings these classic plays into the light of today, where they fit remarkably well. Harvey makes sure of that. 

This year, the Dionysia features Aristophanes' The Frogs, tonight through Tuesday, 7 p.m, at multiple performance locations: Tonight, Saturday, Sunday – Rockwell Pavilion in UH’s M.D. Anderson Library (second floor), Monday – Fitzgerald's (2706 White Oak Blvd.) and Tuesday– Khon’s Bar (2808 Milam St.).

 Harvey has some different ideas on saving Athens. He adapted the play to include the Greek debt crisis, the bailout and the escapades of Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Wal-Mart and Denny's make their way into the text, too.

 

 Just in case you are not up on your Greek drama, here's a flash recap of The Frogs. Dionysus heads to Hades as he tries to fetch the freshly deceased Euripides to bring back intellectual savvy to the Greek city of Athens. Once he gets there, things don't turn out the way he plans, and Dionysus finds himself caught in a battle of words and wit between Euripides and his fellow tragedian Aeschylus. 

Harvey has some different ideas on saving Athens. He adapted the play to include the Greek debt crisis, the bailout and the escapades of Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Wal-Mart and Denny's make their way into the text too. This may be Harvey's most outrageous play so far, and if you know his work, that says a lot.

After last year's Agamemnon, the renegade scribe was ready to bust out. "Well, we'd polished off the tragedians, time to do a number on the comedian," muses Harvey.

What's new this year is that Harvey has stepped aside in the director role to make room for Aaron Landsman, artist-in-residence for UH’s Mitchell Center for the Arts. One glance at their YouTube video and you know that this is a match made in thespian heaven. It's obvious from their chemistry that this production is going to be one quirky and charming experience.

All in all, Harvey has enjoyed handing the reigns to Landsman, and having some company in stage-based troublemaking. Both outsiders to traditional theater, Harvey and Landsman found themselves on the same page from day one.

"Having Aaron around really kicks it up. I love having Aaron direct, as well," Harvey says. "We had an instinctual connection." 

Landsman felt instantly comfortable around Harvey's unique brand of eccentricity as well. "I had a blast at the audition," he says. "We have a great rapport."

Harvey is best known as a frequent playwright for Mildred's Umbrella, where he wrote and directed plays, such as Night of the Giant and Under the Big, Dark Sky that baffled and amazed audiences. Landsman has performed extensively with Elevator Repair Service, whose methods challenge traditional ways of making theater. Landsman isn't entirely new to Houston; he also was the brains behind What You’ve Done, a co-production between DiverseWorks and Project Row Houses.

The play is a non-stop crack-up fest. Harvey has dressed his key characters in fabulous fashion choices, for example, "Dionysus wears a White Double Breasted Tom Ford suit with pointed peak lapels, Satin Black and White Checkered bow tie, Corneliani White Faille French Cuff dress shirt, Hunting Stewart kilt and Viotti Red Satin formal dress shoes." Landsman has brought his own zaniness to the project by putting the frogs on bikes. What a way to enter as you croak. "The bikes (now exercycles) are looking great," reports Landsman. 

 When not busy with The Frogs, Landsman is also researching and planning for his epic opus, City Council Meetingwhich includes actual text from a Houston City Council meeting.  

In yet another first, Harvey plays Aeschylus, with Landsman playing Euripides. "I love acting," says Harvey. "Teaching and lecturing is performing; they see a show."

Landsman chimes in, "I get to bust out a marginally appropriate French accent in my portrayal of Euripedes."

When not busy with The Frogs, Landsman is also researching and planning for his epic opus, City Council Meeting, which includes actual text from a Houston City Council meeting. Harvey will serve as "a staffer" in the piece. City Council Meeting will premiere at DiverseWorks in November.

He sees several parallels between Greek drama and civic discourse, from the elevated platforms to the public's often dramatic testimony. Working on The Frogs has informed his approach to City Council Meeting, in that both involve regular people rather than trained actors. The audience will, in part, perform the play. "I like it when people perform themselves," says Landsman. "There's also some bleeding of the fourth wall in both." 

You can follow Harvey, Landsman and the cast's adventures in and about The Frogs on their blog. "I guess the one dawning realization is that there is this kind of latent pathos and heartbreak underscoring a lot of the comedy and wildness in the piece," says Landsman. Harvey adds, "It's going to be a circus."

Catch the oddball chemistry between Harvey and Landsman as they explain their approach to The Frogs.

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