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Stanford Classics in Theater brings the mishaps and mania of Euripides' The Cyclops to Hollywood

Stanford student theater group draws attention to modern obsession with celebrity and fame with a new translation of Euripides' classic play.

After rocking out at a three-day concert, a band of hipster musicians takes a wrong turn on the way home and ends up in Hollywood, where a washed-up former A-lister lures the band members to her mansion and refuses to let them leave.

Jon MadorskySCIT troupe members Stephen Sansom (foreground), with Alan Sheppard, Scott Arcenas, Michael Vang and David Dris, rehearse a scene from The Cyclops.

SCIT troupe members Stephen Sansom, foreground, with Alan Sheppard, Scott Arcenas, Michael Vang and David Dris, rehearse a scene from The Cyclops.

Such is the premise of The Cyclops, the modern interpretation of Euripides' classical play of the same name, produced by the student group Stanford Classics in Theater (SCIT).

The play was translated and directed by classics graduate students and performed by Stanford students from an array of disciplines. Three shows will be performed today through Saturday (May 23-25). Admission is free with a Stanford ID and $5 for the general public. All performances will be at Stanford's Toyon Hall.

For its fifth annual production, SCIT has adapted Euripides' 2,000-year old Cyclops – itself a parody of Homer's Odyssey – about Odysseus and his crew getting stuck on an island with an angry, blinded Cyclops and his over-sexed satyr servants.

The result is a comedy whose bawdy humor reflects some of the absurdities of our modern-day celebrity- and fame-seeking culture. Euripides, known for his pointed, un-romanticized portrayals of Athenian culture, would no doubt approve.

Since 2009, SCIT has promoted understanding of and engagement with classical theater by students through original research, rehearsal and production.

This year, The Cyclops departs from the more serious themes of war, debt, politics  and the global financial crisis that were addressed with humor in past adaptations of Aristophanes' plays. These, belonging to the genre of Greek Old Comedy, are works characterized by exuberant satire of public persons and political criticism.

Euripides' Cyclops, however, belongs to the Greek satyr play tradition, typified by the presence of a chorus of rowdy nature-spirit satyrs contrasted against the main heroes, with the action based on widely popular mythical tales such as Homer's Odyssey.

The move from the Old Comedy to the satyr play reflects "a mood to try something new," said The Cyclops producer Alan Sheppard, a third-year classics doctoral student.

As happens every year, SCIT's team of graduate students in the Department of Classics first translated Euripides' play from the original Greek before adapting it to a current context.

Sheppard, who helped translate and adapt the text, and also plays one of the supporting roles, said the most challenging parts of the translation were Euripides' jokes.

Jon MadorskySCIT troupe members rehearse a scene from The Cyclops.

SCIT troupe members rehearse a scene from The Cyclops. From left: Scott Arcenas, Michael Vang, Kevin Bagnall, David Driscoll, David Fifield, Jacob Kovacs-Goodman.

"We decided early on that trying to translate jokes based around misusage of Homeric language wasn't possible, so instead we wrote a lot of jokes based on the tendencies and stereotypes of the characters in our play," he said.

Euripides' original play, said Sheppard, is largely about the culture clash between Odysseus' human crew, which observes the laws of civilization, and two types of very unruly mythological creatures (the Cyclops and the satyrs).

Finding a relatable modern-day foil posed some challenges to the translators, who had to ask themselves, "Who are the cultural dinosaurs of today?"

Celebrities, particularly those who try to hold on to fame at any cost, proved to fit well into the play's plot and themes.

"We ended up with a faded Sunset Boulevard recluse, a hipster ensemble band and a chorus of frat boys and sorority girls," said Sheppard.

All the ingredients necessary for "misunderstandings, mishaps and mania," he added, are in line with previous productions, which have drawn on "political and popular culture, Aristophanic-style sexual humor and a healthy dose of physical comedy."

Polly Famous, played by Stanford staffer Rebecca Autumn Sansom, is a former Hollywood darling, now nearly forgotten, who desperately wants to get back into the public eye. The musicians of the band Otis and Us claim disinterest in recognition, but are clearly seeking fame and fortune while following all the latest trends like eating the "paleo diet" and rolling their own fair-trade cigarettes.

Poking fun at celebrities who either seek fame or try to hold on to it was not a long stretch in adapting Euripides' original play. The enduring appeal of a famous name was extremely important in ancient Greek society, said Sheppard. "One of the driving forces in Homeric epic and early historiography was to preserve the 'kleos' (a word roughly equivalent to fame) of great men."

This year's motley cast and crew members come from across Stanford's campus. The majority are classics graduate students, including the play's two directors, Ava Shirazi and Hans Wietzke. But the play's lead, David Fifield, just completed a master's degree in computer science.

"I came for the fame and stayed for the Tacitus," he joked about his involvement with the classical theater troupe.

Among the other SCIT members from various academic disciplines are chorus member Nicole Nomany, a sophomore in archaeology, and Jamin Ball, the scene manager, who is a junior in management science and engineering.

The Cyclops plays today, Friday and Saturday (May 23-25) in Toyon Hall at 8 p.m. and is sponsored by the Stanford Classics department, the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and the Graduate Student Council.

Veronica Marian is the communications coordinator for the Stanford Humanities Center.