by Michael Bowen
Lysistrata is the ancient Greek comedy set in the middle of a war, with women going on a sex strike so their husbands will stop fighting. The men come home, all right, sporting huge erect phalluses.
And you're wondering why the classics aren't taught more often in junior high.
For the impressive masculine appendages, the Athenians of 411 BC used leather; the current Civic production in the Studio Theater (through March 27) uses foam rubber sculpted out of those swimming pool "noodles" -- as one backstage crew member told me, "with a wire inserted for stiffness."
Note to Civic: A potential revenue stream is being missed here. You should be selling these things in the lobby.
But seriously, folks -- Lysistrata has a long track record as an anti-war play. A year ago, two New York actresses threw together the Lysistrata Project as a protest against the war in Iraq -- and suddenly, up sprouted a thousand productions in 56 countries.
In 1997, the head of the Colombian army appealed on national TV to the wives and girlfriends of the drug traffickers and left-wing guerrillas -- couldn't they abstain from sex for just a little while? -- and his ruse actually led to a brief cease-fire.
Two summers ago, the women in a small town in Turkey, after repeated requests, finally got the menfolk to clean up the municipal water supply by -- you guessed it -- refusing to play the hokey-pokey.
Because, as it happens, that is what it's all about.
At least it should be. Spectators haven't flocked to Aristophanes' comedy for more than 2,400 years because they're fascinated by the parallels between the Peloponnesian Wars and whatever conflict we've started in the Middle East lately. They're in it for the sex jokes.
Unfortunately, the Civic chose an academic translation from 1964 for this production, when more contemporary versions are available. I'll admit that the rantings of the two choruses -- one of geezers, one of crones -- have never made much sense or seemed very funny to me, but surely we can do better than old guys wink-winking about "the scorching tensions that ravine up the lumbar regions."
Alan Sommerstein, for example, has a 1987 translation for Penguin that isn't reluctant to use off-color terms or to delete jokes that seemed funny, oh, two and a half millennia ago -- with the effect, as reviewers have noted, of getting closer to Aristophanes' emphasis. No need to be coy or scholarly. What we need is an anti-war sex farce in the style of South Park, or something like Sex in the City for older women who will never vote for Bush. (Would taking away W.'s connubial rights bring back our boys in Afghanistan and Iraq? Just a thought.)
As one wag suggested, Lysistrata boils down to the proposition that "if we all got laid more often, there'd be less violence." But too much material kept in the interest of historical accuracy -- as with this production -- leads to sequences where we laugh mostly because we think we're supposed to. Instead, toss the jokes about Corinth and Boiotia and get focused on the bawdy fun stuff.
In the title role, Kate Vita certainly got our focus. One director has described Lysistrata as "Joan of Arc crossed with Mae West," and Vita, sexy in a red dress, knows how to project her allure. She also commands enough stage presence to be convincing as the leader of a revolt, standing up to authority.
When the police commissioner (Steve Whitehead) suggests that women have no part in a war, Lysistrata reminds him of how many sons the women have lost in battle. She also attacks the practice -- apparently, typical even of ancient Greece -- of men collecting trophy wives. Vita adds dramatic weight to what would otherwise be lightweight proceedings both here and in a brilliant concluding scene. When the horndogs of Athens and Sparta argue over terrain -- not the political kind, but over the contours of a woman's body (Peace, played by Chasity Kohlman) -- Vita makes a great satirical scourge. It's where the anti-war theme is most strongly presented.
As Lysistrata's sidekick, Kleonike, Jacqueline Davis skewers feminism -- "Wisdom from women? There's nothing cosmic about cosmetics" -- even as she supports the revolution. Davis gives good comedy, exulting over the part of the oath that pledges her to "fire my husband's desire with my molten allure," then pouting comically when Lysistrata requires a promise to "remain, to his panting advances, icily pure."
As Kinesias (his name means "movement," preferably of the horizontal kind), Bil Childress is the first of the husbands to appear with one of those foam rubber doo-hickeys jutting upwards from his crotch. The scene when he pleads for sex with his wife Myrrhine (Stacy Lynette Powell, a "honey" who knows how to milk a tense situation until it nearly, but not quite, explodes) depends on Childress' ability to maintain a stern expression while 90 people are laughing at how ridiculous he looks. And he succeeds. He's got the blues, all right -- a pair of them.
In a limited space and with limited means, Nik Adams' set evokes the heavy doors of a mini-Acropolis, flanked by figures right off Keats's Grecian Urn. Director Marianne McLaughlin and choreographer Troy Nickerson have coordinated some swirling movements in a small space, especially with the two choruses. It's nice to see a large-cast production inside the Studio; one consequence was an opening-night house packed with friends and family.
That audience could've done with less historical fidelity and more contemporary punch (with the sex, the politics, and the sexual politics). But McLaughlin has directed a cast that has lots of energy and is clearly having a good time -- foam-rubber phalluses and all.
Publication date: 03/11/04