Sing to me Muse, of the Centaur doing Stand-up Comedy

Giorgia Carli reviews Dublin Fringe Festival’s Chiron

“Chiron, you’re not really funny, but your life is hilarious!” When I found out that Dublin Fringe Festival had a play entitled ‘Chiron: A One Centaur Show’, the part of me that chose Ancient Greek as a Minor freaked out and I immediately signed up to review the production written and portrayed by Fionn Cleary and directed by Niall Johnson.

So, on September 9th, I walked through the Pearse Centre doors. I picked a comfortable chair on the third row, regretting not going for the second as soon as a tall dude sat in front of me and covered 60% of my view. An evocative lyre tune playing in the background lulled me into a solemn, classical ambience. Suddenly, the volume of the music lowered; the lights inundated the stage. The unmistakable signs had spoken: the show was about to begin. 

A mysterious figure appeared from the back curtains, still covered in shadow. As he approached the microphone stand in front of the stage, a vivid laugh vibrated through the audience: he had four legs! The hybrid creature standing before us was none other than Chiron, the Centaur himself, ready to let us in on every detail of his extraordinary existence. 

“I know what you’re thinking and yes, it actually happened in the myth.”

As Chiron recalled, this existence started when the Titan Cronus, in the body of a horse, impregnated the nymph Philyra – I know what you’re thinking and yes, it actually happened in the myth. Logically enough, this wild origin story explains the combination of human and animal anatomy within one immortal creature. Due to her disgust for this strange being  – I mean, who could blame her? – Philyra then abandoned her infant son in a cave, where he was later found by the Olympus god Apollo. He pitied Chiron – I mean, who could blame him? – and took him under his wing; he instructed him on the arts of lyre, prophecy, and medicine, while his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of hunting, taught him archery. 

Due to his wise and pacific character, Chiron served as a tutor for many relevant figures in Greek mythology, including Achilles, Apollo’s son Asclepius, and even Heracles. Soon enough, however, this latter hero became an upsetting yet alluring presence in Chiron’s life: it was indeed him that hit Chiron with an arrow drenched in Hydra’s venom. Chiron thus seemed to be forced to live in excruciating pain for eternity. This is the ending as far as the myth is concerned. That said, this does not indicate Chiron’s death in the play – a pretty unexpected turn for a tragic myth. But I digress. 

Apparently, this unfortunate event was the circumstance that convinced our Chiron to write a stand-up comedy act for Dublin Fringe. For the rest of the show, then, he kept complaining about how painkillers would not work, how his chronic illness rendered him unable to satisfy his wife Chariclo’ sexual needs, and, more generally, how life sucked. While rambling that “hope is awful because it makes us endure our shit for the rest of our time”, however, his phone rang. It was , surprise surprise , Heracles, calling to tell him that he and Zeus had come up with a plan to save Chiron from his cruel destiny: he was indeed about to trade his immortality to redeem Prometheus’s eternal punishment and stop his stomach from being eaten by a voracious eagle every day. When Chiron pointed out that it was maybe not too fair to him, Heracles simply hung up. Before the audience could process it, Chiron started to feel dizzy and dropped his dead weight on the mattress conveniently located to his left. This was the premature end of his life,and with that, the show.

Despite the informal tone that I’ve employed so far, I believe that this show was extremely well crafted.Firstly, it provided insightful content on the Greek myth itself. Whether you are a confirmed lover of Greek literature like me – and a blessed freak, might I add – or you are just now entering the esoteric world of its intricacies, it makes no difference; Cleary wrote the perfect show for you. The dramaturgy was, indeed, attentively detailed, and many specific creatures and names were mentioned in the span of sixty minutes. Yet, this did not influence the overall clarity and coherence of the exposition.

“Cleary excelled whether interpreting Heracles’s expansive heroism, or in cracking up strict Irish small-town accents to distinguish the wilder centaurs from our protagonist.”

 Moreover, Cleary’s’s performance brilliantly depicted Chiron’s quiet and more reserved personality with shy gestures and a gently paced discourse. I admit that I mistook these signs as nervousness at first; however, my erroneous interpretation was completely washed away by the confidence that Cleary exhibited in interpreting Heracles’s expansive heroism, or in cracking up strict Irish small-town accents to distinguish the other, wilder centaurs from our protagonist. Cleary truly showed a wide range of acting resources that rendered the show both hilarious and easy to follow. The fact that he was wearing a wool jumper in the middle of the hottest week of Dublin summer adds about a hundred bonus points for his dedication.

The second reason relies on a more contemplative aspect. (What can I say? I am a Philosophy student after all and I have to follow my instincts.) Despite being focused on a remote and legendary theme, the play offered an intriguing comparison between Ancient Greek culture and our contemporary values. This connection is particularly evident when considering Chiron’s search for a solution to alleviate his illness. For this occasion, the centaur resorts to both Asclepius’s scientific treatments and the Delphi oracle’s enigmatic divinations. Cleary cleverly took advantage of this passage to reflect on the current conflict that Western medicine faces against more mindful and astrological practices. However, while our current society tends to dismiss the latter, in the play neither option prevails over the other. Cleary does not spare either of them from punch lines, and equally jokes about the radical tendency to psychologise all our physical pains through Chiron’s paradoxical incapacity to heal himself with the same nurturing methods he so competently taught others. This debacle interestingly keeps the debate going: is science as objective as we make it up to be? Do we ever surpass the distinction between external and internal experiences? Is there such a distinction? Are we discriminating against other traditions when we so promptly dismiss different alternatives to science? Boy, between this and my Ancient Greek and Philosophy studies, don’t I love unanswered issues!

“The show pleads with us to keep looking, to keep being attentive, to keep our curiosity alive.”

These open questions lead us to consider in a similar way another central matter of the show: hope. Feeling death coming upon him, Chiron reminisces his soliloquy on the misery of hope and attempts to change it into a more positive outlook. However, he conveniently expires before reaching any conclusion. This anticlimax again shows the writer’s intention to leave us with unresolved doubts and queries, this time regarding how we should live our life – a major topic in both ancient and contemporary discussions, quod erat demonstrandum. The show does not solve the problem for us; it would have been too satisfying and easy for the audience. However, it pleads with us to keep looking, to keep being attentive, to keep our curiosity alive. Who knows, maybe the reward that Chiron receives – being turned into a constellation in the celestial chart – does suggest a starting line for our eternal quest. 

The play exposed an exquisite balance between comedy and subtle existential interrogations – the best combo you could ever wish to witness. For this reason, I can only find myself agreeing with Centaurophile weekly’s rating: four legs out of five!