‘Topsy Turvy’: From Covid to Ovid, a pandemic parable
Willa Fossum (Ima Emrite), Chas Harvey (Distracto), Megan Stogner (Distracto), AyindéHowell (Igneus). | Photo by Ashley Randall

CULVER CITY, Calif. — In an informal conversation following Topsy Turvy’s premiere during the reception in the backyard of The Actors’ Gang’s Culver City citadel of stage, Artistic Director Tim Robbins flashed that still boyish grin of his and confessed Dionysus was his favorite deity. “That’s my god!” the Oscar winner gushed. Dionysus, of course, is (among other things) the Greek god of theater, and one of Athens’ amphitheaters (near the Acropolis), as well as a 5th-century BCE theatrical festival, were named after this artsy son of Zeus and a female mortal.

Dionysus (portrayed by Gang veteran Scott Harris in a snazzy suit) makes a special guest appearance in Topsy Turvy, a one-act, 105-ish-minute-long play written and directed by Robbins. It is among the first fictional stage or screen productions to dare to dramatize one of the thorniest phenomena of our times: The Covid-19 pandemic, which is here simply referred to as “the plague.” (In 2021, playwright Willard Manus adapted Daniel Defoe’s 1722 nonfiction account A Journal of the Plague Year at the Brickhouse Theatre in North Hollywood.)

It’s easy to reconceptualize this 21st-century pestilence, with its mostly modern-dress dramatis personae (although there’s a toga here or there, wrought by costume designer Rynn Vogel), within the framework of a Greek tragedy. To that end, various figures from ancient Greece’s pantheistic panoply of pagan gods tread on the Gang’s bare boards (occasionally enlivened by Cihan Sahin’s projections), including Bacchus and Onan (both also played by the multi-tasking Harris) and Aphrodite (depicted by another stalwart of the Gang’s company, the cleverly cast Amazonian Guebri Van Over). Robbins certainly puts the Pan into the pandemic.

Shortly after the proverbial curtain lifts on Topsy Turvy, a sort of soothsayer straight out of Julius Caesar, issues dire warnings about impending doom in the form of a plague. The black-robed and hooded Harbinger (incarnated by another Gang regular, Luis Quintana) admonishes the cast, who have been crooning, that “Ancient demons are with us again,” and sure enough, a health scare for the ages befalls the singing characters. (The multi-talented Robbins, who has rocked with the Rogues Gallery Band, also composed Topsy Turvy’s songs, and live musicians accompany the company and action.)

It’s also natural to frame these singing thespians (the cast has about 17 members) as a Greek chorus, which had particular functions in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, et al. But it is the singularity of Robbins’s vision that he tosses into Topsy Turvy’s bubbling cauldron theatrical elements that would also be quite at home in Greek comedy (at least in spirit, if not necessarily in technique). So, stage devices that Aristophanes likely would have relished are added to the story, which Robbins has “pilfered” from Vaudeville. The heaviness of the subject matter is softened if not leavened with humor, as Gang sight gangs, slapstick and the like add comic relief to a pretty grim subject matter. Sometimes they appear in the form of the aforementioned Olympian divinities, but the Vaudevillian ingredients can also take shape as Mungo the Monkey (Megan Stogner). Give them the ol’ soft-shoe!

Topsy Turvy focuses on how humans, who are by and large social beings, coped with the pandemic’s fallout, in particular, the stress of isolation, the fear of being touched, the anxiety every breath could bring, zooming in on how it affected and afflicted our love of life and love lives. Soon the chorus falls out among themselves, with one faction strictly adhering to sequestering themselves. Glowing orbs cleverly symbolize the screens many used during the worst days of the Covid outbreak to safely communicate, albeit remotely. However, as in real life, others in Topsy Turvy defy the doomsayers by braving the disease and daring to socialize in person.

Fazeelat Aslam (Constance), Molly Kirschenbaum (Constance), Mary Eileen O’Donnell (Olive), Jimmy Berry (Prior), Charlotte Hacke (Thalia), Adam J. Jefferis (Cletus), Adele Robbins (Amaryllis), Mariana Jaccazio (Iris), J. Claude Deering (Persnickety). | Photo by Ashley Randall

Luis Quintana appears to lampoon Anthony Fauci as “Dr. Cracker Jack,” while Will Fossum gives voice to the medical establishment as a character simply called “Doctor.” As the characters grapple with the plague, Topsy Turvy never so much as mentions the vaccine. This may leave some perplexed theatergoers scratching their heads, since the mass deaths that befell us during the worst of Covid seemed to have empirically subsided with the invention of a vaccine in record time and a delivery system to get it into the arms of millions. Such was the miracle of modern medicine and science, of humanity’s ingenuity—all ushered in, by the way, under the aegis of a buffoonish wannabe tyrant that not even the best Greek playwrights could have ever conjured up. To those who believe in the vaccine, what a delicious irony that Trump can’t take credit for what is arguably the only good thing that he ever did in his entire miserable existence. (But I digress!)

Be that as it may, Robbins the dramatist has once again displayed boldness by treading where most playwrights dread to tread. In 2003’s Embedded, the intrepid bard dared tackle the folly of Bush’s Iraq War (which Biden voted for), a lone wolf crying out in the wilderness against the popular consensus, the manufactured consent of the military-industrial-governmental-media complex about all those still yet-to-be-found “weapons of mass distraction.” The play not only lampooned but harpooned the Bush administration and the professional flatterers of mass murderers. Much to his credit, Robbins’s Embedded was likely the first anti-Iraq War stage production (in 2004 Robbins helmed a video version). Robbins—the stage’s soothsayer and slayer of false witnesses—brings that same topical edge and verve to Topsy Turvy. Excelsior!

Topsy Turvy is being performed at 8:00 p.m. on Thurs., Fri. and Sat., and at 2:00 p.m. on Sun., through June 8 at The Actors’ Gang Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd, Culver City 90232. ​Post-show discussions led by writer/director Tim Robbins are on Fridays, May 24, May 31, and June 7. For info and tickets: (310) 838-4264, or go to the company website.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.