Chapel Perilous Theatre Ensemble at the Arts Group
Lysistrata's enduring themes of war and sex, couched in accessible (read "cheap") humor, have made it one of Aristophanes' most popular and widely produced comedies. Sadly, it's a play that seems forever relevant, and unlike The Frogs you don't need a swimming pool to produce it.
You don't even need a "concept," as the Chapel Perilous Theatre Ensemble proves with its fairly solid, mostly traditional staging (translation by Nicholas Rudall), complete with togas, veils, and colonnades. This production, directed by Kerry Jerke, tells the story of Lysistrata without gimmick or contrivance, relying not on forced and unnecessary updatings of the text but on the wit and insight of the playwright himself. In the process it proves that you can do a lot worse than Aristophanes.
Fed up with war, Lysistrata (Sharon Pabst) persuades the womenfolk on both sides that the way to bring about peace is to deprive their pugnacious husbands of sex. Swearing a reluctant oath (the deprivation is as hard on them as it is on the men), an army of women take over the Acropolis and its supply of military gold. When the Commissioner of Public Safety (Carl Coash) and an indignant assemblage of Athenian men protest that the gold is for the war effort, Lysistrata tartly informs them that if women are good enough to take care of household budgets, they're certainly good enough to look after the national budget. Defending themselves with spindles, bedpans, and eggbeaters, the women declare that there will be no more money for the war and no connubial bliss for the warriors until peace is declared. Eventually the men are too busy struggling against the weight of huge hard-ons to bother struggling against one another, while within the acropolis the women suffer their need with little outward stoicism but much resolution.
The play is famous for its ribald humor, and you can get a lot of mileage out of it. "How are things in Sparta?" asks the commissioner, wrestling to hide a phallus the size of a tennis racket and balls like grapefruit. "Hard, sir," replies the Spartan ambassador, himself bent over by the weight of an elephantine erection. The phalluses the men wear in this production are appropriately ridiculous and oddly unintimidating--thick and plush, like stuffed toys. The humor here is also gentle, even a little sheepish--often shying away from the out-and-out physical crudity the situation shouts for. When, at the urging of Lysistrata, Myrrhine (a charming Dawn Hillman) teases her husband Kinesias (an equally likable Chris Hickman) past all endurance, her efforts do not include any notice of (or longing for) his erection, which seems to sit up and beg between them like a small dachshund. She could twist the knife with a little more precision if she wished.
Yet Chapel Perilous has a firm grasp of the desperation behind Lysistrata's scheme, and Aristophanes' plea for peace shines through. When the commissioner takes Lysistrata to task for lecturing him about a war in which women bear no part of the burden, she sharply reminds him of the sons women sent to fill out the front lines in Sicily. Momentarily chastened, the commissioner implores her to abandon the subject of the slaughter that took place there, and the two of them share a moment of pained silence and mutual loss. Pabst is a strong, charismatic Lysistrata, and Coash a sensible commissioner--for a moment it seems as though he might listen to her. His pride wins out, however, and he must suffer longer before a reconciliation is possible.
Energized by much song and dance, some of it on the sloppy side, this production is at its best when it sticks to a traditional approach; handing out condoms during the reconciliation seems tacked on and preachy. Compensating for that is a chilling moment at the end of the play when a discordant noise from offstage disturbs Lysistrata's solitary contemplation of peace, implying that her victory could never be anything but short-lived.
ACME WHITE TRASH LYSISTRATA
Adapted and directed by Dan Sutherland, Prop Theatre's Acme White Trash Lysistrata is the same story but with a cornball accent, a nastier and keener sense of humor, and less interest in the message than in perpetuating tired stereotypes of poor rural white folk.
Instead of Athens we are in present-day Muskrat County, where common-law marriages, birth defects (presumably from inbreeding), and missing teeth are the rule. This Lysistrata (the charismatic Lisa Boudreaux) and her womenfriends swear on a jug of corn mash that they will entice their men with their best mail-order lingerie, but refrain from intercourse until the fighting with the men from the neighboring county stops and life in the trailer parks is safe again. They seize the Grange Hall and fight off Sheriff Thickmeat (the Commissioner role, Jonathan Lavan), while the town minister preaches hellfire and the village geeks, Siamese twins, display a single branched hard-on with three testicles.
Tom Billings's scenic design--with its chicken wire, driftwood crucifixes, and shoebox Grange Hall--is eye-catching, and the live music by Family Problem goes a long way toward making this evening more entertaining than an extended Hee Haw sketch. The energetic cast and their unanimously terrific comic timing manage to sustain the one-note "white trash" joke longer than I thought possible, and for that they deserve congratulations. But good performances can't save a production that's drowning in its own concept--even if it is twice as bawdy as the Chapel Perilous version.
The phalluses employed here are long, skinny, painful affairs capped with Dixie cups. The men of the ensemble do a wonderful job of wincing every time they brush up against something. The women don their best polyester-blend peekaboo nighties, and the stage is set for a darn good battle. But in the mad rush to establish "white trash" personas everyone has forgotten the point of that battle. Too much time is spent on tent-revival writhings and two-headed-baby jokes. The focus shifts from Aristophanes' play to the trappings; while funny at times, they're not tremendously original and often condescending.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.