Thursday, November 5, 2009

Theatre AUM "Lysistrata"

An enthusiastic standing room only opening night crowd witnessed Theatre AUM's lively production of "Lysistrata", a masterful Old Comedy by the Greek playwright Aristophanes known for its frank depiction of sexual relations, witty double entendre, and very direct and hugely comical obscenities.

First performed around 411 BC during the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, today it is often played as an anti-war play [on March 3, 2003 it was produced around the world as "The Lysistrata Project" in an attampt to disuade the President from going to war with Iraq]; or with its title character the first female protagonist of its time, it is often seen as a feminist treatise.

Director Neil David Seibel chose to set his AUM production in the 1960s, and fills the scene with assorted flower-children clad in knee-high leather boots, mini-skirts, and mis-matched colorful patterned outfits on a set reminiscent of television's "Laugh-In", and firmly embraces the anti-war interpretation that only occasionally gets serious and which exercises a good deal of decorum in presenting the play's sexual subject matter -- ribaldry here, not lewdness.

Adding to the nostalgic setting -- one which pre-dates virtually all the cast members -- Seibel has chosen numerous popular songs of the 60s to further his points. Bookending the play with "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" as an anti-war anthem, other titles such as "These Boots Were Made for Walking" and "Hit the Road Jack" target the feminist theme.

The women of Greece are both tired of a seemingly interminable and senseless war and sexually frustrated while their menfolk are absent. They are lead by Lysistrata [Shaina Pierce] to end the war and bring their husbands home by going on a sex strike. She calls a meeting of women representatives of all the city-states and has them swear an oath to deny making love with their partners until peace is declared --not an easy task considering that the women become equally frustrated sexually, yet one which ultimately and preposterously succeeds.

Characterizations are broad and bawdy, but retain an innocence and naivete due in part to the reminiscences evoked by the 1960s. The AUM actors were energetic and seemed to enjoy romping through the play's silliness. It is one of the traps of such a time location -- we either overlook or de-emphasize the serious issues of the day in favor of a feel-good nostalgia. And there were real issues in the 60s as well as today that fade into the background as we concentrate on having fun.

Aristophanes satirized men and women fairly equally in this play, and most certainly proposed some intelligent solutions to war -- compromise through political diplomacy for example. After the men -- notably Cinesius [Wes Milton comically uncomfortable in extremis as he desperately tries to make love to his wife Myrrhine (Sarah Worley) as she taunts & finally denies his advances] -- give in to the women's demands, Lysistrata [Shaina Pierce] forcefully explains that former allies can yet again be friends, and that we all have a lot more in common than we remember during times of disagreement.

There are some moments of hilarity in this production, though there is some unevenness in the overall production: tentative movement and sustaining character for example. Laura Bramblette as the Leader of the Women's Chorus creates a fine impersonation of Ruth Buzzi's old woman on Laugh-In, and received applause & laughs on merely making an entrance. As the ditzy air-head Calonice, Laura Selmon, complete with blonde wig and high-pitched voice, deserves our admiration. And the Old Men's double act played by Chris Howard and Mark Dasinger keeps the disguise going with reminiscences of Tim Conway's old man from Laugh-In and the Carol Burnett Show.

Ms. Pierce's Lysistrata is matched by Phadra Foster's Spartan Lampito; together, they are a major force to contend with, whether through biting dialogue or sheer physical dominance.

The staging is "traverse" style, placing the audience on two sides of the acting area. While this aids the intimacy somewhat, there are some challenges built in: actors must not face one side more than the other, and when facing away, they must be heard clearly. -- There were a lot of lines that simply could not be understood because of this arrangement; and this was further complicated by a lot of physical movement, whole-company dances, and the deserved audience responses.

In all, this was an enjoyable production that clearly delighted the opening night crowd, yet somehow -- the pleasantness and naivete of the 1960s dominating the proceedings -- the bite of the satire didn't penetrate quite far enough.