You know the story: under the leadership of Lysistrata the women of Greece engage in a sex strike, pledging themselves to resist their husbands’ erotic advances until the men agree to end the Peloponnesian war.
But Lysistrata is not something that can be ventured into casually. Not only is much of the text in verse—well, doggerel, but still verse, which is not easy; not only are there great servings of slap-stick comedy, which is certainly not easy; but we find that Lysistrata’s still-relevant pacifist theme is buried in a veritable dung-cart of outrageously obscene humor—which if not carried off with masterful finesse can verge on the embarrassing.
(The Greeks invented the word “obscene” to designate actions which must only occur off-stage. To them “obscene” meant murders and other bloodshed, while the lewdest most scatological humor was welcome on-stage. Isn’t it odd that in America it’s just the reverse: sex in movies is, to many Americans, still obscene, while we have an insatiable appetite for all the explosions, slashings and dismemberments that Hollywood can feed us.)
In any event, what Lysistrata needs is a cast of classically trained actors who can carry off the verse as well as a cadre of veteran vaudeville comics. Bert Lahr, Joe E. Brown, Ed Wynn, Lucille Ball—that’s the kind of talent this show needs. In the original production, lo these millennia ago, the cast (and perhaps the audience) was all male. I’m not too sure that that isn’t really the best way to do this show. I can see it happily done with a keg in a fraternity basement or by students in a boys’ middle-school or with the Monty Python team when they were fourteen. But for a co-ed cast of adults it takes some very special actors—and probably a choreographer.
What I’m inching toward saying is that with Lysistrata the Clayton Community Theatre have bitten off quite a bit more than they can chew.
This show grew out of a production design that director Vanessa Revard-Roman did for a summer-abroad project ten years ago. And from a design perspective it’s excellent: she sets it in front of the White House in the early ‘70’s—a time of widespread anti-war protests. Music is from that era—folky anti-war songs a la Bob Dylan, and of course “The Times They Are Achanging”. The set, by Steve Myers, is beautifully designed and built—marble steps to a landing with a balustrade overlooking the White House lawn. And behind it all a splendid huge mural of the White House, painted by Robert Beck.
But in the performance aspects the show is weak. Elizabeth Breed gives a powerful and spirited Lysistrata, but even she often seems, like most of the cast, to be racing through merely memorized lines. Blocking is unimaginative; too often Lysistrata’s women are simply standing in a line exchanging dialogue; and the battle, where the women attack the men with kitchen implements, consists of the gentlest poking and shuffling around stage.
Costumes are nicely ‘70’s (Colin Nichols, as the Commissioner, wears three conflicting plaids). When a man appeared in a kilt I was startled; but clearly this was needed to facilitate the up-skirt vulgarities that Aristophanes has him exchange with a woman of the chorus.
The crudities never cease. There is an exchange of flatulatory barrages between the chorus of old men and the chorus of old women. (Surely this scene would benefit from an off-stage whoopee-cushion or two.) When the Athenian men appear in a distinctly aroused state their great false phalluses are amusingly animated.
What this type of humor requires of the actors is a supreme confidence—and an utter shamelessness.
The show comes to life in the scene where Myrrhine (the lovely Lauren Reynolds) teases her very horny husband Kinesias (played by Brad Kinsel). It’s delicious, and Ms. Reynolds is irresistibly seductive. She’s a treat for the eyes, as is Elizabeth Renee, who appears in the final scene as Peace, wearing a nude body-stocking and an acanthus leaf or three.
But all in all, Clayton Community Theatre’s production of Lysistrata, is a long stretch below what the play ought to be.
Lysistrata continues at the Wash. U. South Campus Theatre through November 18.