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Lysistrata Jones By Gregory A. Wilson
The Judson Memorial Church Gymnasium, in the process of being transformed into a full-fledged arts space, is the venue for the off-Broadway (by way of Dallas) production of Lysistrata Jones, a wild adaptation of Aristophanes' famous comedy Lysistrata. The inspired environment contributes a tremendous amount of energy to an already up-tempo piece which flies through its two hour performance time. Whether the focus of the piece is helped enough by that energy is another matter.
Lysistrata Jones tells the story of its title character, a transfer student to Athens University trying to fit in better in her new school than she did in her old. But there's trouble brewing for the spunky Lysistrata (played by Patti Murin, who originated the role in the Dallas Theatre Center's production) right from the outset. She's fallen for Mick (Josh Segarra), the captain of the basketball team that hasn't won a game in thirty years (which doesn't seem to faze them), and after she decides she can no longer stand the constant losing, she comes up with an apparently brilliant method of motivation: withhold sex until the team wins a game. Convincing the other girlfriends to go along with this scheme is a fairly simple exercise, but when the team doesn't immediately fold under the pressure, things quickly become more complicated. . .while Lysistrata's plans, and world, begin to fall apart just as quickly.
In its basic premise, this adaptation (the brainchild of Douglas Carter Beane, whose reputation precedes him) is quite faithful to Aristophanes' initial concept. But where the original Lysistrata gained a great deal of its satirical force from its subversion of the traditional gender roles of the time, to say nothing of its attacks on the military / male mindset, the modern Lysistrata Jones seems curiously dated by comparison. Even the music, written by Lewis Flinn, suggests a kind of late 70s feel, though references to modern events and activities like blogging using MacBooks are obviously trying to ground the musical in the present.
Maybe it's less that it feels out of date and more that it feels out of sync: why Lysistrata is so hell-bent on getting the basketball team to even care about winning is never really explained to any satisfaction beyond some vague musings about wanting to know what it "feels like to win." Indeed, why a cheerleader who only learns about Aristophanes through a quick perusal of Sparknotes lights on his play's method as the way to change the fortunes of her college team in the first place-or why anyone, from the poetry slam devotee Robin (played memorably by Lindsay Nicole Chambers) to the progressive blogger Xander (Jason Tam) to the motley crew of the team's significant others who get on board, is so convinced by her approach-is never clear either.
Of course, this may be asking for more than the musical ever intends to offer. But as Beane writes it and Dan Knechtges directs it, Lysistrata Jones doesn't seem to be intended as lighthearted schlock either. There's a thread of poetry and passion woven throughout the production which seems to be pointing towards deeper levels of engagement, even while a character like Cinesius (Alex Wyse) pretends to be a straight from the street, "sideways baseball cap wearing" hip-hop champion who is actually an English major named after Theodore Dreiser. Mick, as it turns out, isn't all dumb jock either, but how he operates given that supposed other self is frustratingly incoherent. It's as if the ambition of the musical constantly reaches for something its foundation can't support, Gilbert and Sullivan trying to be a mix of Verdi and Shakespeare.
Despite my reservations I wouldn't call Lysistrata Jones a failure, because both Knechtges's direction and the energy of his actors is so heartfelt, often charming. The characters are perfectly cast, with Chambers, Segarra and Murin as standouts. Murin in particular invests Lysistrata with a warm vulnerability that makes her highly appealing, even if, like the plot of the story, her voice isn't always quite up to the challenge posed by her musical numbers. Ensemble pieces are handled professionally and convincingly.
In fact, as the show wore on I found myself, perhaps like Lysistrata's (both original and modern) followers, found when thinking of her, rooting for it to succeed. I don't think that can entirely make up for a story which can't decide if it wants to be lighthearted fun or serious satire, or for a musical score the feel of which can veer alarmingly from A Chorus Line to Glee within the space of a few minutes, but there's a lot to be said for a production with its heart in the right place and the courage of its convictions. . .even if I can't figure out exactly what those convictions are. If you're in an adventurous mood, it might be worth your while to try to figure them out for yourself.
Note: The above review posted during the show's run at the The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street @ Washington Square South where it played from 5/15/11 to 6/24/11 and opened 6/5/11.
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