That after two and a half millennia we still produce and flock to the plays of Ancient Greece is a testament both to our undying sense of cultural history and to how compelling these works can still be. Showing how foundational Greek drama is for our theatrical tradition is the fact that the cover of the printed program for Theodora Skipitares’ new production of Lysistrata doesn’t even bother noting the playwright, Aristophanes. Much as with Hamlet or King Lear, the name of the bard can almost go without saying.
Yes, it’s technically an adaptation. But the spirit of Aristophanes is here in full, along with very much of his language.
While we can’t know exactly how plays like the bawdy Lysistrata were performed in fifth-century-BC Athens, I feel fairly safe in saying that Aristophanes would have no trouble whatsoever recognizing this La MaMa/Skysaver Production, despite the changes; I’d venture to guess that he’d applaud it, too. In spite of the video addenda, the clever puppetry, and the electro-gospel music (written and performed by Sxip Shirey, whom I know from the gypsy band Luminescent Orchestrii), this is Aristophanes’ famous sex-strike tale played, at heart, fairly straight.
Which means, in the case of this particular play: broad humor, absurdity, and extreme salacity, if not quite outright pornography.
It has a slow start. With a kind of awkward grace, our heroine Lysistrata appears—like many of the characters, a sort of full-frontal puppet. Sick of the endless Peloponnesian War, she has called a meeting of the women of Greece to propose that they withhold sex from their husbands until the men make peace. The pact is sworn; the older women are enlisted to take over the Acropolis and its war treasury; and eventually the men, desperate for sport and sporting giant prosthetic erections, beg for mercy. But not before the women overcome some difficulties, including a group of militant old men and, more seriously, the call of their own sex drives—for Aristophanes’ women are just as horny as his men.
With voices a little muffled by their puppets, these women act in broad gestures, a style that takes a bit of getting used to. But once the shuffling pace is established the action proceeds with a steady, stylized rhythm. Masks and puppets, puppets and masks.
The songs resemble African-American spirituals, which feels somehow just right for the utterly fundamental human subjects of sex and war. It is in the words sung by the Choruses that Ms. Skipitares takes liberties with the text. We lose very little thereby. (Though I did wonder why she changed a reference to Priapus—not in a song—to the nonsensical “phallic symbol.” In these days of ubiquitous TV commercials for erectile dysfunction treatments and the attendant warnings about priapism, the name of the sex god Priapus might just ring a bell with many.)
The action breaks for news videos from modern times recounting real stories of people using sex strikes and similar actions as political protest. These are informative but they scream the message (that “this play is still relevant!”) a bit too blatantly for my taste. I did enjoy the commentary by the two giant, literal talking heads, but was always glad to get back to the main story. Which, really, doesn’t need any help.
Antonevia Ocho-Coultes’ regal Lysistrata gets solid support from a cast that includes Raquel Clon as the brash leader of the Chorus of Old Women, Hakim Williams as her preening male counterpart, and Daniel Irizarry who plas the put-upon Magistrate in a delightfully over-the-top screech. Several cast members operate multiple life-size puppets at once, a very clever way of making a small cast significantly bigger. (Who needs CGI crowds?) A wild story, told strangely (to our ears) by an ancient writer, but ultimately funny and satisfying and, on another level, a good opportunity to get in touch with the roots of theater.