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|A CurtainUp Review
By Carolyn Balducci
In Lysistrata ordinary women from Athens, Sparta, Corinth and other parts of Greece unite in a radical act of civil disobedience. After they are summoned to Athens by Lysistrata (whose name means "Disbander of Armies") they make a sacred vow of solidarity.
The women then occupy the temple of Athena where the national treasury is kept. (Scholars believe that the character of Lysistrata is based on Lysimache, a celebate priestess and public official for 64 years and who served as Secretary to the Treasurers of Athena from 417/16 to 415/14 BC). The women refuse to have sex with their husbands until the men of Athens and Sparta sign a peace treaty.
Deprived of sex, husbands become so horny and so immobilized that they cannot fight. The older (i.e. impotent) men, who brag about their battle prowess in days past, scale the walls of the barricaded Acropolis with as much huffing and puffing as they would copulating. When they attempt to burn out the traitorous females, the women douse their flaming torches with water. The older men and older women insult each other and finally strip and engage in hand-to-hand combat.
Meanwhile, the articulate Lysistrata debates with the Probulous, one of the dictators who control the city under a kind of War Powers Act. The comedy's centerpiece is the frantic but unconsummated lovemaking between a "sweet" wife named Myrrhine (her name connotes "honey") and her desperate young husband, Kinesias (whose name means "movement" as in kineseology and cinema).
Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata during the Peleponnesian War. An outrageous comedy about war and peace like Aristophanes' other known plays, ot holds a special place in history. It was performed at the Lenaia in 411 BC during an optimistic lull in the fighting when it looked as though Athens was strong enough to negotiate peace from a position of power. The play celebrates this fragile hope and lends screwball logic to the concept that any idiot, "even a woman," could make peace if only he would try. Some months earlier, Athens had lost its fleet off the coast of Sicily when a coalition formed among Sparta and its allies, aided by Persian satraps and Alkibiades, the rebellious Athenian governor. By drawing upon reserves set aside by Perikles at the start of the war, the Athenians planned to rebuild their navy and regain lost territories. The war went on for seven more years however, at the end of which Athens was defeated, the city sacked and its precious freedom lost to its enemies.
Lysistrata is one of the greatest comedies ever written. It contains poetry, word play, formal dramatic elements (such as a prologue, a parados, agon, parabatic debate, choral interludes, episodes and exodus) and is full of references to historical and mythological entities. Having translated this and other comedies into English, I can attest to the challenge of making a comic text both accurate and funny. Translators of Lysistrata (e.g. Lindsay, Henderson, Fits, Douglass Parker, Rogers and Sommerstein) differ widely in rendering the dialogue into English. Most of these translations are better read than performed. To quote drama scholar, Sarah Ruden(Didaskalia,Vol.1,Issue 3] " . . . directors [of Lysistrata] are usually forced to. . .gloss over dullness and inaccessibility with elaborate choregraphy, costumes, etc. This is especially painful in that the language fails to be funny and hangs limply on extraneous directorial inventions." On the other hand, loose adaptations of the text tend to be so free-wheeling and superficial that while they may be crowd pleasers, they seldom endear themselves to classicists.
In March(03/03/03) The Lysistrata Project blossomed into a one-day international peace event. Hundreds of readings of Aristophanes' play took place around the world. Several English language versions of the play, including my own, were posted on a website so that amateur and professional groups could pick among them. Some rhymed, some were X-rated, some were feminist, some were condensed, but all were pro-peace. Most likely, some staged readings were better performed or better written than others; nevertheless, reviews and news commentary described exuberant audience responses of cheers, applause and peels of laughter. Unfortunately, this is not the case at the Bouwerie Lane Theater.
The night I previewed the play, the audience seemed restrained. Though it was funny in spurts, the dialogue lacked enough punch and momentum to provoke sustained laughter. The applause at the end was not thunderous.
The cast's ability to interpret lines was uneven. The physical comedy was sometimes sluggish. Elise Stone does an excellent job in her extensive and complex role as Lysistrata, one of the longest speaking parts for women in the classical repertoire. Amanda Jones (Myrrhine) and Abe Goldfarb (Kinesias) are energetic and fun to watch in their love making scene.
The Goth look of the production would have lent itself better to tragedy or farce, but with an outrageous comedy about rebellious women and horny men it seemed incongruous. The torn black gauze and black leather faux S & M costumes were not flattering and looked uncomfortable.
Male actors camping up women's parts added confusion to a play centered on the absurdity of sexual desire between husbands and wives. Cramped space and dim lighting created other atmospheric distractions. The presentation of the Probulous (Harris Berlinsky) as a wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove made the small stage seem even smaller. Since the stage was already cut in half by a chain-link fence, there wasn't enough room for much movement. Toward the end, actors stood in the aisle with backs to the audience making stage actions impossible to see and words hard to hear.
The Jean Cocteau Repertory should be commended for trying to produce a classical Greek comedy under the worst of all possible circumstances: the death of its adaptor-director, David Jiranek six weeks prior to opening night. Lysistrata is an excellent example of how great comedy transcends suffering and death by challenging assumptions and refusing to accept the status quo. It was a good choice on Jiranek's part as a means of protesting war in general and the horrors it inflicts on civilians, particularly children. (Jiranek founded Through the Eyes of Children: the Rwanda Project.) Jiraneck's was tragic. Unfortunately, this posthumous production seems so huddled in a shadow of grief that it is unable to step into the light of hope where the audience can bask in the brilliance of Aristophanes' radiant optimism.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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