Some plays come alive on the page, some require actors to breath life into them. The Thespians Anonymous spring show is a Frankenstein's monster. Mixing history and sports television - pouting gods, fart jokes, and dating shows - Jay Hopkins and John Hunter's The Iliad, The Odyssey, and All of Greek Mythology in 99 Minutes or Less makes for a bewildering cold read. Luckily, the actors are lightning. Some portray that metaphor quite literally.
The Iliad, The Odyssey, and All of Greek Mythology in 99 Minutes or Less runs from pun to pun, riffing on modern stereotypes and suturing them onto classical tropes with diabolical abandon. Actors flip roles, sketch morphs into sketch, Zeus wields his lightning bolts, and suddenly - It's alive!
Comedy is more than the content of the joke - it's the way that it's played. Director Janne Andsten puts it another way. "You have to use the best tool for the job. Very often you need to combine many different elements to best realize a joke." That is to say, "comedy is more than the sum of its parts."
"It's when you mix something so different that you get a hilarious result," Lotta Heikkinen. states, citing lessons taken from a source of comedic inspiration, Armstrong & Miller sketches. "Like with all acting, comedy involves everything: from your body to your voice, to how you deliver the lines and when. You have to be able to listen to the audience and play with them as well as with your fellow actors. It also helps to be able to study people and pick up characteristics or traits and then exaggerate them when you act on stage," Lotta reports on her own methods.
Lotta portrays the breathy, moue-pulling Aphrodite as well as a bent, aged man prone to exclamation, and... well, what character doesn't she play? The Iliad, The Odyssey, and All of Greek Mythology in 99 Minutes or Less features over 100 parts played by 10 actors. "When you play multiple roles, you struggle to make them distinct from each other. Sometimes you have props that can help show who or what you are, but in the end, it's all up to how you use your body on stage. I try to walk differently, to make different voices or speak in a different pitch/volume. Certain gestures or poses become "signatures" for the characters so that if you could just see a silhouette of them, you'd be able to recognize them."
"The biggest challenge right now is the timing," says Janne. "We're on a very strict timetable with the play as we have to do it in under 99 minutes which, while possible, is difficult. Things have to move extremely rapidly, and keeping that pace up throughout the play is one of the biggest challenges I'm facing."
Stage manager Nihan Taniser agrees. "So far, the time limit has been the biggest challenge! I had thought it would be hard, but not this hard - there is no time to slack off in this play, or have a 30-second black out set change. A lot of change has to happen right in front of the audience in broad stage-light. Even running offstage for a quick change or prop pickup drags the play. It's a lot of pressure on the actors to keep the pacing. But this quick pace is part of the comedy."
Big and fast, like a sledgehammer.
"It's not really subtle at all," concurs Lotta. "There's been a lot of sniggering during rehearsals."
Janne agrees, describing his favorite gag, "let's just say that it really does come like lightning from a clear sky with all the subtly of a hammer."
As well as demanding precision and flexibility from the actors, the play's fast, bold humor places special demands on the backstage crew. From a stage manager's perspective, it's all about running a show, making sure things happen on time and in the right place," says Nihan. "Of course, in a fast paced comedy like this one, timing is very important. Certain sound or light cues, no matter how short the effect is, should come just on time."
"The challenge," says Janne, "is to combine all the different aspects of comedy and use them to their fullest potential, which is harder than it seems. Very often while directing I've had moments of epiphany when I suddenly get a joke."
Why choose such a beast of a play? "I've grown up with mythology all my life," responds Janne. "Even as a small child I remember reading and listening to the Greek (and Norse) myths, often in fairly uncut versions too (no Disney-fied versions here, though Hercules the movie is still great), and as a result I have a fondness for the various stories told in them. Originally my producer, Nastia, held a play reading. I was there and loved the play. Fast forward a few weeks and I was asked if I wanted to direct the play. I said yes, I would like to. And here we are."
And what can you, the audience, expect? "The rapid-fire jokes of Monty Python is something I've been aiming at in the play," says Janne, "and their surrealist humor works quite well with the play's irrelevant (and oft-irreverent) take on Greek mythology."
"This isn't a Greek drama or comedy; it is more like a sketch show," Nihan adds. "What I find funny about this play is that it is, in fact, a play about actors staging a play about Greek Mythology, which means they occasionally drift out of their mythological characters. It is quite "meta"."
"What can I say?" Janne sums it up, "It's really funny, and even if you have no idea about Greek mythology it's well worth checking out. If you've ever wondered what happens in the Iliad or the Odyssey and don't care to read the books, this play is a good alternative. For those who do know the stories, you'll find that the play is fairly faithful to its source material."
The Iliad, The Odyssey, and All of Greek Mythology in 99 Minutes or Less shows at Gloria kulttuuriareena May 7, 8, 13, and 15 at 7pm. Check out the Thespians Anonymous website for more info and tickets, click here.