Thursday, October 2, 2008

Lysistrata, Southwestern University, October 1 - 5

Preparing for Southwestern University’s staging of this 2003 version of Aristophanes’ comedy, I dug out my worn copy of The Complete Greek Drama, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr. in 1938. That’s right – the editor of the comedies was a Yale classicist and son of the famous American playwright.

In his introduction to the collection and to this play O’Neill stressed that very little remains of the ancient Greek comedies. Thousands were performed at annual festivals in Athens in the period 500 bc to about 350 bc, but only 14 texts survived, eleven of them by Aristophanes. Virtually all of his texts are brilliant and irreverent. They are frequently obscene.

O’Neill, writing in 1938, lamented,

“The pacific fantasy of Lysistrata. . . looks to the future more clearly than any other play of Aristophanes that has come down to us, for its timelessness is almost equal to that of the New Comedy and far in excess of anything that we find in the Old. This should have made it in modern times the most popular of the poet’s compositions, and the fact that it has not been so is a sad tribute to the omnipotence of Christian prudery, but the success of a not too emasculated adaptation produced in New York in 1930 might induce the true son of the twentieth century, who is also a philhellenist, to hope that his grandchildren may dwell in a clearer and healthier atmosphere.”

O’Neill’s predicted timeline was about right. The year 1968 and all that came along to help rock that prudery. The runaway success of the musical Hair celebrated a new pushing back of boundaries. American culture has loosened up even more since then.

I didn’t see anyone walking out of the well-furnished theatre at the Sarofim School of Fine Arts at Southwestern University last night upon the sight of actors parading about with comic phalluses, a practice common in the ancient Greek comedies. Spectators had had fair warning. The play was advertised as for mature audiences only. In the program for the evening, straightforward Dramaturgy Notes by assistant director Cate Madeley explained the Greek tradition at length and provided an illustration from a Greek vase of a priapic Pan.

That was an impressive collection of dongs! They were long, short, limp, erect, swelling or truly impressive in length and girth, according to the plight of the attached owner. But this isn’t an XXX website, or even an X website, so you’ll have to imagine them or go see for yourself.

The plot is simple. Athenian noblewoman Lysistrata (Claire McAdams, in pink) assembles women of Athens and enemy city-states in a sex strike that puts the men in severe, visible discomfort. Lysistrata, whose name in Greek suggests, “The Releaser from War,” and her female coalition demand peace, a peace treaty and a return to normal life.

Aristophanes wrote the short, swift and bawdy comedy in 411 bc, when Athens had been grinding away in wars for twenty years. Carnegie Mellon professors J.A. Ball and Michael M. Chemers adapted and expanded the text in 2003, in connection with the “Lysistrata Project,” which involved many simultaneous readings of Aristophanes across the country to protest the fighting in Iraq. They brought it to the stage the next year. Carnegie Mellon Press published their version in paperback last year (available for the impressive academic press price of $17).

Ball and Chemers retain much of the original text while stretching it sufficiently with additional incident to reach two hours, including a very brief intermission. Their updates are comic and a bit cute: for example, adding a stand-up comedy interlude, in which Phlaccidos (Evan Faram), the gruff commander of the platoon of Old Men, bathed in a spotlight, recounts ten yuk-yuk reasons that Wine is better than Woman.

The authors tickle contemporary indignation by turning the hapless Magistrate of the original into “Archon, the Athenian Commissioner of Home Front Security.” Zachary Carr has some telling lines but much of the time he overplays them. His character comes across as a prancing, expostulating cowardly asshole, a sort of Snidley Whiplash of the melodrama circuit.

A more effective choice might have been to play Archon as a true believer rather than as an idiot. Especially if the point is to satirize a certain class of U.S. official.

The authors do put in an occasional real zinger, such as when Kleonike (Jayne Furlong) purrs that sex-striking women can serve as “weapons of massive distraction.”

There are lots of funny bits here – the clever differentiation among the women characters, for example. Spartan Lampito (Hannah Rose) wears UT burnt orange and white go-go boots and speaks with clod-kicking accent and vocabulary.

Her husband the Spartan herald (Matthew Harper) is just as gosh-darn UT, complete with a white football helmet. There’s a great moment when the tipsy Lampito is finally released to go after her man and can’t quite get upstairs to him.

Diminutive Sara Peterman, playing the envoy from Boeotia, is abashed most of the time, speaks a wild unintelligible dialect something like Latin, and when roused, really gets into the demonstration of sex positions.

And the massive Edward Coles, in blue dress, matching turban and huge false boobs makes the audience howl, just by standing there.

The extended teasing scene in Act II between red-haired Myrrhine (Alexis Armstrong) and her ardent, frustrated husband Kinesias (Tyler King) is almost verbatim from the original, and it’s very funny. Unfortunately, I don’t have a usable image of the duet, because his Thing just wouldn’t get out of the way.

Then there’s the question of style. My aged classics professor used to mutter, “No one does Greek drama the way the Greeks did it.” He was referring to, for example, the highly stylized poetic diction, the consistent use of masks, the speaking by chorus members in unison, and the limitation of the number of actors to three male speakers.

I don’t insist on any of that. I’m happy to see this powerful satire adapted so as to reach a modern, largely university-age audience.

The shortcoming that did consistently surface through the play was shrill, rushed vocalizing. This may have been a deliberate choice in favor of a declamatory style. For me, McAdams as Lysistrata too often was shouting out her lines at the top of her voice, mistaking energy for eloquence. In contrast, her moment in the spotlight toward the end, proclaiming the strength and power of women, was a model of clarity. Carr as Archon and Faram as Phlaccidos spent a good deal of time shouting without articulating adequately.

The authors deleted entirely Aristophanes’ instructions that each of the four Scythian guards, when ordered forward to attack the women, be so scared that he crap in his pants. Instead, they have the chorus of Old Men throw their disgusting underwear at the chorus of Old Women – and when the Old Women throw their gaudy panties in return, the Old Men grab them up and run offstage sniffing them.

We appear to have made more progress in tolerating obscenity than in tolerating scatology.

Lysistrata marked the first time in Greek comedy that a woman character took the reins and shaped the outcome of a comedy. For the ancient Greeks that concept must have been just as absurd as the notion of a sex strike.

In our own post-feminist day, not only are most of the women’s roles in this play actually played by women, but the whole thing ends with the onstage crowd doing a thunderous rendition of Helen Reddy’s 1970 song “I Am Woman,” which became a feminist anthem when released as a single in 1972.

Pianist Becca Plunkett, tucked away in the well at center stage beforehand, at the interval and afterwards, does a droll collection of piano lounge music that includes a very lazy Sousa march and a Bob Dylan anti-war song, returning repeatedly to the chords that at the end open into “I Am Woman.”

The curtain call was too long – the actors formed a circle, took a pause and bow, then rotated the circle 120 degrees, took another pause and bow, then did it a third time. The audience kept the applause going but their palms were starting to wear out by the end.

So there’s something in this Lysistrata for everyone who’s willing to tolerate a bit of penis brandishing. Some funny characters. Some funny moments. Some satisfaction at poking fun at the Authorities of the State. Bright costumes, attractive young actors. And a Message.

Comment: A note on critics and actors. A long time ago, when I was playing an eccentric in a dark, moody piece of theatre, I got a scathing review from the usually friendly critic from the local newspaper. My theatre professor Dr. Jones came up to me just before the next performance, as I stood there in my heavy makeup, whitened hair and misgivings. He glowered. "Play it just the way you did last night. That's the way I directed it."

His unspoken rebuke: a critic is just a critic. A director directs. An actor acts. A critic just reacts.


  1. I wonder where they got all that pleated stuff...I love it!

  2. All of the pleats were ordered online, possibly from Wright fabrics? All of the costumes were of course made by the SU costume department.

  3. Dear Mr. Meigs,

    Thank you for this thoughtful and enriching review. I was lucky enough to see this performance, but I owe you tremendously for posting these images, particularly of the ever-ravishing Edward Coles.


    -Michael Chemers (adaptor)

    1. Is there an online version of the script for free @ Mr. Chemers