The Frogs Under the Waterfront

Meet at Mac's Brewery, Wellington

02/02/2009 - 07/02/2009

NZ Fringe Festival 2009

Production Details

The Frogs Under the Waterfront 

Bard Productions Brings Theatre Into Hades (Underneath the Waterfront) For the 2009 Wellington Fringe Festival

Bard Productions teams up with Capital Theatre Productions and Wellington Waterfront Limited to bring theatre to a new and exciting level with "The Frogs Under the Waterfront"

This February, during the Wellington Fringe Festival, an adaptation of the hilarious Greek theatre classic "The Frogs" will be performed underneath the Wellington Waterfront, with the audience in paddle boats.

A large ensemble of some of the city’s finest actors and musicians, collaborating with director Paul Stephanus, will re-discover the much-loved Waterfront with this modern, interactive production of a time-tested classic. The action of the play starts around the Waterfront cut-out between Te Papa and Circa Theatre, and eventually moves into Hades, where the audience will accompany Dionysus on his trip into Hades.

The performances will take place from:
Monday the 2nd to Saturday the 7th of February,
and then again from
Monday the 16th to Saturday the 21st of February.
The 12 performance season has to be divided as such because these are the only dates that work with the tide. We don’t want audience members hitting their heads on the ceiling of the Waterfront at high tide!

The audience must be at Mac’s Brewery at 6:15 for a mandatory safety briefing. The performance will go forward in any weather conditions, because the majority of the show will take place under the cover of the Waterfront. For the small portion of the play that is above the waterfront, the audience will be provided with high-quality umbrellas. 

Spaces are limited to 25 audience members for each performance, so book as soon as possible.

Bard Productions thanks Capital Theatre Productions, Mac’s Brewery, Ferg’s Kayaks, City Boat and Bike, RadioActive, Wellington City Council, NZCT, Southern Trust, Creative Communities and the Wellington Waterfront for their support in making this incredible opportunity a reality.

This is a very rare chance for the people of Wellington to discover a unique and "off-limits" part of the Waterfront while enjoying a spectacular show.

Waged $25 / Unwaged $20 / Fringe Addict $18
Tickets available from Downstage Theatre – 04 801 6946/ 

Luke Hawker
Simon Smith
Rob Hickey
Mike Ness
Scott Ransom
Matt Clayton
Lucy Edwards
Amalia Calder
Wilbur McDougal
Woody Tuhiwai  

Assistant Producer: Phoebe Smith
Composer, musical director: James Dunlop
Set design and construction: Giles McNeil
Costume: Helle Rosenberg; Eliza Thompson
Photographer: Jenni Hammond; Tim Hackett 

2 hrs, no interval

Cast meet challenge like ducks to water

Review by Lynn Freeman 25th Feb 2009

If any show epitomizes the best of a Fringe festival, it’s Frogs.  That it sold out pretty much before it opened is a testament to a brilliant concept.  That people all over town are talking about it and those who missed out are thrilled at the news it’s having a return season next month, is a testament to the fact the show fulfils its promise.

Simon Smith is an absolute delight (channelling Hugh Laurie in his Wodehouse days) as the daffy Dionysus, who despite his fears about the dark and Purple People Eaters, travels to Hades to bring back the poet Euripides. We join him, his trusty slave Xanthias (Michael Ness) and donkey Sebastian on a boat trip to Hell. 

The audience climbs onboard pedal boats (in my case broken pedals and leaking but all part of the experience) and travel under the waterfront which is fascinating in its own right.  The theatrical highlight is the duel between the poets, Euripides (Luke Hawker) and Aeschylus (Rob Hickey).  The translation is littered with contemporary references, making it as fresh and funny as it would have been to Aristophanes’ audiences 2,500 years ago.

The frogs (Matt Clayton, Amalia Calder, Scott Ransom, Lucy Edwards and Woody Tuhiwai) deserve special mention, brave enough to swim in that water and move the pedal boats around, and their chorus at the start is nothing short of brilliant.

Giles McNeill’s set design makes the most of the eerie venue, Paul Stephanus, the director, is a genius and his cast take to the challenging conditions like ducks to water. 


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Wonderfully fresh, outward-looking and entertaining

Review by Melody Nixon 11th Feb 2009

The play with what could be the biggest heart in the Fringe opened on Monday for a lucky group of 25 rapt audience members. The Frogs Under the Waterfront is a highly ambitious and creative take on Aristophanes’ BC work, spiced with topical commentary; snippets of poetry, singing and – unbelievably – swimming; and much care and enthusiasm.

While the overall working of the piece is patchy in parts, and could be shortened by at least half an hour, the pure novelty of the experience, the courage of the actors (some of whom brave the tepid Wellington waters  for nigh on two hours) and the eloquence of the opening and closing scenes make this work truly worthwhile.

Simon Smith imbues his central role as Dionysus with a full dose of God complex, carrying much of the action throughout the play with an improvised wit as well as flippant arrogance. The opening take with Smith on a walkway staring up into the burly shoulders of Heracles (William Arthur McDougall) is completely engaging and possibly offers the most humorous interchanges of the play. Xanthias (Michael Ness) forms a reliably grumbling sidekick, and functions well as an underdog who complicates our sentiments for Dionysus. Ness could perhaps work on his stage presence and find ways to add nuance to his repressed slave state, although he really comes into his own in his more straight-forward impersonation of Heracles.

The brilliant concept at the heart of The Frogs is the water-borne journey that forms the intermission for the play’s three Acts. Alongside Dionysus on his descent into the underworld, the audience is stewarded into paddle boats and lead through the lattice work of Wellington harbour’s underbelly. Somewhere below the entrance to Circa theatre the boats are brought to rest by Amalia Calder as a strangely Cockney ferrywoman (would it be more interesting to have a gruff, blue collar kiwi playing this role?), and lined up to face a muddy stage. This is set (each low tide anew) on the small slopes below the high-tide line. The combined effect of burning torches, creaking docks and lion-skin covered actors cavorting about in the shallows is momentarily breathtaking.

When the mystique and excitement of this setting wears off, and the chill of sitting on the water for thirty minutes starts to wear on viewers, this Act does drag a little too long however. Stephanus’s exposition is snappy, but it still feels like straight exposition at times, too intent on going through, scene by scene, each encounter between Dionysus and the underworld folk, where an abridged version could suffice. The beauty of the piece is in its atmosphere and invention, and strict adherence to the original work doesn’t seem necessary. There are incredibly gutsy performances from the actors. Woody Tuhiwai is insurmountably positive as the water-borne frog and successfully charming as the bumbling slave, and as uncomplicated as her role may be Lucy Edwards seems to fully enjoy cavorting as the wench-Maid. Despite this however, each skit sits chunkily next to the other and in a sense fails to feed in a whole, smoothly moving plot. The ultimate intention of the scene – to bring Dionysus to Euripides, his much esteemed poet – happens quickly and without much build up.

The unexpected shift to the third Act and setting revamps the play’s spirit and transports us to what could be the most-ingenious device of the play – an interpretation of the ‘Chair’ that makes the mind boggle at the logistics involved. Rob Hickey as Aeschylus is superbly suited to adorn the chair as a symbol of intellectual rigour and stead, but also the rigidity of established power. Despite this, young and fool hardy Euripides is played in such a way by Luke Hawker that the final outcome is somewhat satisfying. It is humorous to note that Aeschylus derides Euripides’ use of women in plays; perhaps if this is a serious concern of the cast they could work to beef up the female roles in their own work.

Last but by no means least, vital support comes from Scott Ransom and his inexhaustible energy. There does not seem to be much character differentiation between his Frog and role as Abacus, but he undoubtedly pulls the play along to its end. The sheer marathon of effort Ransom and the rest of the cast pull off is testament to the lengths artists can go to when they are truly committed to a work. If you’re lucky enough to hold a ticket for the rest of the sold out season of The Frogs, Bard Productions-style, be sure to wrap up very warm and take a cushion. Otherwise, there’s no question that Wellington would benefit from a repeat season of this wonderfully fresh, outward-looking and entertaining piece.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.



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Memorable leap into the underworld

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 04th Feb 2009

On Monday evening, along with 24 other "dead souls," I was ferried across the lake that borders the Underworld by Chorus (Amelia Calder) acting as Charon and five fluorescent coloured frogs. An exciting and unusual theatrical experience, particularly as I wasn’t expecting a full version of The Frogs in a very free and easy translation with many topical references from Harold Pinter to Roger Hall, Winston Peters to John Key, and Wellington standing in for Athens.

We were harangued on the wharf by Dionysus, God of wine and theatre (Simon Smith), about his search for Euripides. Dionysus is disguised as Heracles to frighten off danger in the underworld but this comes undone when the real Heracles (William Arthur McDougall) turns up.

Once the prologue was over and we had paid our fee (thoughtfully provided, as are the life jackets, by the management) we set forth in a small flotilla of linked together fairground paddle boats to the accompaniment of a croaking chorus. After a lot pedaling, pushing and paddling we arrived on the shores of Hades, dimly visible in the stygian gloom many metres under the wharf with the foundations of Circa and Te Papa surely only a metre or two away.

Here we watched Dionysus and his long-suffering slave Xanthias (Michael Ness) put to the test by Pluto (Matt Clayton) while we sat close by in our gently rocking boats. Then the frogs guided us to a new spot under the wharf where Dionysus adjudicated the famous debate between the recently dead Euripides and the mighty Aeschylus to establish who is the better artist to save mankind.

Aeschylus, with a whisky in his hand, was suspended a metre above the water in a lazyboy, while Euripides sprang about on a fishing net hanging between the barnacled piles. Aeschylus’s defense of the traditional play elicited applause from the audience. The debate over, we left the Underworld and returned to the living.

The play is performed with enormous energy, physical and vocal. Wetsuits or not it must still be a chilly experience for the actors. Vocally, however, the actors overdo it and some voices will not last the season if they carry on as they did on the first night. And shouting, particularly in the scenes in front of Pluto’s cave, made the dialogue often unintelligible.

But this is a highly unusual production and it will settle down as the season progresses. It’s great fun, imaginative, and a memorable theatrical adventure and we need Aristophanes’ message as desperately today as the Athenians did in 405 B.C.


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Energetic, witty and often stylish

Review by John Smythe 03rd Feb 2009

  How perverse to play The Frogs first up in the Fringe
  Since 2,400-odd years ago it heralded the binge
  Of Dionysian revels to counter tripled tragedies
  Levitating Athenian moods with satire played to please.
  Not only that but this lot thought ‘t’would be a cunning stunt
  To play the main part of their show beneath the waterfront!
  Much piddling round with paddle boats adds to the sum of fun
  Even if the main result’s a very numbed bum.

(Sorry if that is egregious but those couplets are contagious.)
The counter-argument is that it is totally appropriate to open a Fringe festival with a play from the dawn of drama that debates the whole notion of playwrighting – e.g. should theatre be logically realistic or inspiringly heroic? – and plays with its form and content in the process.

Dionysus (a.k.a. Bacchus), the patron deity of theatre and agriculture, is on an earnest quest to save the city of Athens, suffering in the wake of a disastrous battle, by bringing Euripides – the recently deceased tragedian (Medea, etc) – back from Hades, presumably to help the People process the trauma through the healing powers of theatre. But Euripides turns out to be more concerned with unseating the longer-dead Aeschylus (the Orestia, etc) from his Greatest Dead Poet throne, obliging Dionysus to mediate with scales that purport to determine which poet’s lines are weightier.

Given Dionysus is also the god of wine – of liberal libations that liberate through ritual madness and ecstasy – an entertaining blend of irreverent send-up, bawdy comedy and political satire informs the journey’s progress. So anyone resurrecting it 2,414 years later must honour its essence with topical infusions.

Director Paul Stephanus, who is mostly responsible for the adaptation, and his splendid cast achieve this with alacrity. Dylan, Cat Stevens, Roger Hall and Winston Peters, National and Labour, for example, get judicious mentions amid timeless lines like:

  We sneer and leer till the festival’s ended
  Finding double-entendres where none are intended.

After a safety briefing in a room above Mac’s Brewery, wherein we are issued with lifejackets and our fare to the Underworld, we witness the first scene from facing flights of steps in a hole within the wharf (opposite Circa Theatre). Here we discover the effeminate Dionysius, played by Simon Smith with flair (and a nod to Hugh Laurie’s Prince of Wales in Blackadder the Third) attempting to lord it over his clearly more intelligent and competent servant Xanthias (a laid-back Michael Ness).

He is also confronted by his heroic half-brother Heracles (a suitably brutish William Arthur McDougall), whose deeds include liberating the many-headed dog Cerberus from the gates of Hades. It doesn’t help that Dionysus is trying to pass himself of as Heracles by wearing a lion skin.

Amalia Calder’s raucous Chorus calls us into the paddle boats and a mellifluous ensemble of harmonising wet-suited Frogs (Luke Hawker, Matt Clayton, Scott Ransom, Lucy Edwards and Woody Tuhiwai) sends us on our way down the River Styx – that is, wending our way beneath the wharf into the Stygian depths – only to reappear as tirelessly chatty attendants amid the craft wherein we are positioned to watch events at the gate house to Hades: a rug-curtained dwelling on the muddy shore, lit with gas lanterns (all well-designed by Giles McNeill).

Here the swapping about of lion-skin cladding leads the incumbents of the dwelling to think Xanthias is Heracles, who took their dog so must be punished. Ransom’s Aeacus (unaccountably called Abacus in the programme) takes much delight in being the torturer – of both Xanthias and Dionysus who, being a God, shouldn’t feel a thing but does – at the behest of Clayton’s vengeful Pluto (a.k.a. Hades). But Lucy Edwards’ comely Maid is thrilled to welcome back ‘Heracles’, promising endless pleasures within …

This time, despite the banter of Frogs (in our part of the pond Tuhiwai was a gem), there is less novelty in the moving of the paddle boats and it’s a shame the action gets held up for so long, especially when we can’t exactly get up and walk about. And this time I find my sight-lines obstructed by the piles (which must affect some of the punters in every configuration).

Nevertheless the battle of the poets is a high-point, with Hawker’s Euripides floundering in a fishing net – his final meltdown is a tour-de-force – while Rob Hickey’s whiskey-swigging Aeschylus lords it aloft on the LazyBoy of Tragedy (which, on his departure back to the world of light, he bequeaths to Harold Pinter: nice touch).

I worry that some of the actors will lose their voices if they keep shouting in such a strained way (such challenging gigs as this underscore the value of well-taught voice production). Besides, more relaxed modulations allow the wit to flow to much better effect: witness Simon Smith’s mastery over a full range of moods and passions. Hopefully most of this was due to the nerves and excitement of opening night.

But nothing – not even the aforementioned numb bum – can detract from the undeniable commitment of this Bard Productions troupe as they deliver an energetic, witty and often stylish entertainment, ingeniously conceived and directed by Paul Stephanus and produced by Nana Hirata. [Click here for dates and times, although the site says "sold out"!]

FOOTNOTE, apropos the current Smoking on Stage forum:
  That Xanthias lights up tailor-mades twice at Heaven’s Gate
  A few feet from some floating punters might ignite debate
  ‘Cept it’s ‘outdoors’ of course, although the wharf wood sits more low
  Than any theatre ceiling does, and we can’t get up and go
  (well, not without getting very wet and totally disrupting the show).
  So here at last we may just see it all brought to a head
  Or turn to ash, a non-event; as issues go, quite dead.


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