Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2000
"Lysistrata" is always a fun show. This seems pretty remarkable since it was first performed in 411 B.C.E., but when you consider that its subject is sex, it all becomes perfectly clear. Sex is wonderful and awful, but most of all it is just downright silly. Sex is one of the silliest things human beings do, and it usually makes them pretty silly, especially beforehand.
Aristophanes was a peace-loving man, and many of his plays focus on how peace can be achieved. The title character of "Lysistrata" is a woman with a concrete plan for how to end the war - have all the women of Athens swear complete abstinence from sex until the men call a truce. The women are none to keen on this idea, but they agree to it and soon have secured the Acropolis, where the city treasury is kept. Armed with both money and sex, the women carry the day and a truce is declared.
Neither sex is spared the barbs of Aristophanes comedy in the course of the show. It is hard for us post-Victorian types to fathom, but prior to the 19th century it was commonly held that women were the lustier of the two sexes. Aristophanes certainly presents this view. His women cringe at swearing abstinence, and his men are ludicrous slaves to their carnal desires.
It is important to remember that in its original staging, all of the roles would have been played by men, and that it was comic tradition on the stage to wear "appliances" that exagerated gender traits. The "women" would have been out-fitted with amazing bosoms, and the men with huge leather phalluses. MCLA lets their real female performers retain their own natural shapes, but the two of the men do indeed get to wear false erections under their costumes.
It is impossible (well, the Victorians did it, but they were quite determined) to present a restrained and polite version of "Lysistrata". The version on stage at MCLA, compiled from three recent translations of the ancient Greek, is quite restrained despite those interesting "appliances". And this is its only drawback. The show looks wonderful, is well cast and briskly performed. There was plenty of hearty laughter in the crowd, but this could have been and can be a real laugh-till-it-hurts affair - and it wasn't.
Perhaps the cool beauty of the set by Andrew Hoar, costumes by Kenneth Mooney, and lighting by Mark Grimshaw are responsible for this air of restraint. I promise you, you will gasp with astonishment when you enter Venable Theatre and see this set and those lights. Drop dead gorgeous in warm earth tones and cool pastels with elegant marble walls and pillars surrounding a fascinating gate made all of bars and circles. Each of the women's costumes was obviously designed and fitted to each actress, with the result that every woman looks just wonderful - and there is a great variety of sizes and shapes of women on the stage. The men look far less glamorous, but their costumes meld perfectly with the overall color scheme and feel of the show.
Cool, earthy glamour - is this really the best look for a show where chamber pots are emptied over people's heads and sexual innuendo flies fast and furious? Perhaps louder, bawdier, tawdrier costumes would have loosened the show up a bit. Maybe a "funnier" set with more phallic looking columns would have added to the hilarity. I don't know. I only know that Director Douglas Jenkins and his cast grazed the edge of real slapstick comedy, but never quite made the full commitment.
Because this is a show about a topic that will always be of interest to humankind, it is a good choice for a young cast. They don't have to know volumes of ancient history to understand and present this play as if it were there own. The result is a very genuine performance. Claire Ann Van Cott is regal and persuasive as the driven Lysistrata; and Erin Ann Rooney as Myrrhine is the epitome of the suburbian housewife whose delicate, preppy beauty belies her lusty antics in the bedroom. I wish we saw more of the always lovely AnnChris G. Warren as Calonike.
The men are a little weaker. I actually liked the men of the chorus ( Ryan "Chuck" Patella, Paul Menard, and Ben L. Gitelson) a little better than the "featured" performers, but Graham C. Moriarty as Kinesias and Alfredo G. Aguilar as the Spartan Official were good sports to strap on those "appliances".
"Lysistrata" runs through March 4th at 8 PM at Venable Theatre just off Church Street on the MCLA campus. The show runs 90 minutes and is decidedly bawdy. Tickets are $2 at the door or by calling 413-662-5123.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2000