The Rude Mechanicals LysistrataBy Bob Ashby • Aug 19th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
The Rude Mechanicals
Greenbelt Community Arts Center, Greenbelt, MD
Through September 1st
$17/$14 Seniors and Students
Reviewed August 17th, 2012
In the 1960s, a group called Women Strike for Peace (WSP) played an important role in the anti-nuclear weapons and anti-Vietnam War movements, as well as holding up the House Un-American Activities Committee to well-deserved ridicule. The ladies of WSP never carried out a strike for peace quite as stunning, let alone as funny, as the women of Athens in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, who deny sexual favors to their men until the latter negotiate a peace treaty to conclude a war between Athens and Sparta.
The Rude Mechanicals theater company plays up the 1960s resonance of Lysistrata, filling the production with topical references to the culture and music of young people of the era. Director Jaki Demarest succeeds in drawing parallels between the worlds of 1969 America and 4th Century BCE Greece without falling into the trap of creating a hippie nostalgia piece on the order of Hair.
Lysistrata is, of course, a sex comedy, and the bawdy references fly thick and fast, never more so than in an extended sequence in the second act in which Peter Ovetti and Steve Calamia play the “honorary members” of the Athenian and Spartan leaders, a nice bit of physical comedy that would be interesting to see described on the next iteration of their resumes. The rapid-fire pace of show’s improvisational physical and verbal business never flags, and the cast deserved the frequent and raucous laughter it received from the opening night audience.
Lisa Hill-Corley portrays the title character as a formidably intelligent, persuasive and politically savvy leader who is determined to use the means women have at their disposal to end an interminable war. Like her zaftig but sexy co-conspirators Calonice (Erin Michelle Jones) and Myrrhine (Lauren Beward), Hill-Corley’s handling of the play’s language is flawlessly clear. As Stratyllis, Erica Smith lends a strong physical presence as she leads the women in completely dominating the play’s men.
In this production, the men exist primarily to be intimidated. That such a timid, sniveling, easily-cowed bunch would be attractive to sexually confident women, let alone be capable of pursuing a protracted war, would fatally strain credulity in a piece that was any less a farce. Even the putative leader of the men, the Athenian Magistrate (Paul Davis), is thoroughly in the thrall of a combination of the women and his “honorary member.” For some reason, the two Spartans in the show, Rebecca Hranj as Lampito and Gary Wynn as her husband, speak in what sound like Eastern European accents.
The costuming mostly goes for generic white Greco-Roman, with the occasional 60s touch (e.g., a Nixon button on one of the men’s headband). Stratyllis, in a sort Barbarella get-up, and Myrrhine, in a tight, cleavage-focused red dress, are exceptions to the pattern, seeming neither Greek nor 60s. There is gratifyingly little in the way of tie-dyeing in the costume design. As befits the limited Greenbelt Arts Center performance space, the set is small and simple, with colors, beads and peace symbol decor to help establish the 60s theme. The lighting is efficient, with occasional bursts of multiple colors for a taste of 60s grooviness. There is even a bit of music in the production, when the cast sings period tunes (e.g., “All You Need is Love”) to underline a point in the script.
As Demarest points out in her voluminous program notes, there is a natural affinity between the Athens of Aristophanes’ day and America in the Vietnam era. This is not a brand-new thought. During the actual 1960s, the great lyricist Yip Harburg put together The Happiest Girl in the World, his take on the Lysistrata plot, with music adapted from Jacques Offenbach. Full of delightful tunes and Harburg’s typically clever words, the unfortunately rarely performed show takes an effectively humorous approach to sex, albeit one more coy than that of the Rude Mechanical’s current production. For anyone in the local theater community who sees and enjoys this Lysistrata, Happiest Girl is a show to consider for future seasons.
The Conversation That Started All This
“The thing you have to understand about the Sixties,” Ed Starr tells me over coffee in the crowded, noisy cafeteria of the Air and Space Museum, “is that it really felt like the end of the world. Violence. Riots. Assassinations. War.”
Ed’s agreeing to be my Assistant Director on Lysistrata; we met at the museum by pure chance on a lunch hour, and now we’re talking theme, tone, what a production of Lysistrata would look like set in 1969, a flower children’s cry for peace against the looming backdrop of Vietnam. Lysistrata is a wild, unabashed sex comedy, arguably Aristophanes’ finest work, but Ed and I are in perfect agreement that we want it to be something a little deeper than pure farce, at the core. We want to touch on that strand Aristophanes did himself, the fact that underneath the play’s building sexual frustration, the teasing, the genuinely funny battle of the sexes, there’s real loss. All of these people have lost friends, brothers, lovers, husbands, sons to the war. Ed tells me it felt like the world was coming to an end. Surely, he wasn’t alone in feeling that way.
I’m listening avidly, in part because my own tenure in the Sixties was only a matter of months (I was born in the summer of 1969, just-pre-Moon landing), and in part because Ed is one of the more fascinating conversationalists you’re ever going to meet and He Was There. A young man in 1969. A goldmine, to someone contemplating setting a play in that era.
“It felt like that,” I argue, feeling him out, “and yet there was also a sense of real optimism to the age. Passionate activism. You can hear it in the protest music, see it in the art. I think it may have been the last time there was actually a sense that the actions of a few people could change the world for the better. That a protest or a play could make a difference. That a song or a symbol like a flower in a gun could win hearts and change minds.”
Ed doesn’t disagree, so I go with it.
“The same force of fundamental optimism drives Lysistrata,” I say, staring into my cooling coffee as I feel my way through the thought. “For Aristophanes, it was the idea that Athens could be saved by comedy, that the pen could be mightier than the sword, and the war, shown to be exhausting and unnecessary, could end in lasting peace rather than disaster for Athens. It had to have felt like the end of the world for the Athenians, too, because in a very real sense, it was. Lysistrata is first shown in 411 BC. The Peloponnesian War’s been going on for the better part of 20 years. Athens has just suffered a demoralizing defeat in Sicily. The Persians are coming to the aid of Sparta. Athenian democracy itself is threatened. It’s the end of the world as they know it. And in the midst of all that, there’s this play that offers an impossible, hilarious solution to end the war, and it’s full of a rather poignant combination of grief and hope. It’s a little hard to spot when you’re being hit in the face with that much sex, but it’s there.”
I look down at my tray. It turns out I’ve been rebuilding Athens’ Long Walls of Megara out of McDonalds french fries. Piraeus is a tiny cup of ketchup, Athens, a chicken mc nugget.
“In a few short years, Athens is going to lose the Peloponnesian War.” I can feel myself starting to frown absently at my edible diagram as I pontificate. Ed allows it. I dip a fry of the Long Walls into Ketchup Piraeus and eat it. “In 1969, within an even shorter span of years, the Vietnam War will end in failure for the United States, and leave lasting scars on a generation. It wasn’t enough to put on a play, get everyone laughing, bring the soldiers home in joy and peace and call it done. But in the optimism of the attempt, there’s a kind of triumph. And the effects of that optimism have come down to us through 2,400 turbulent years of human history, and we still perform this play today, all around the world, with the same not-so-secret hope.”
“In short,” Ed says expansively, raising his coffee cup for an ironic toast, “the world is ending. Let’s put on a show!”
I snort into my now-cold coffee, toast him back, and sign on for another labor of love.
Photos by Rebecca Hranj
The Cast (In Order of Appearance)
- Lysistrata, a woman of Athens, leader of the revolution: Lisa Hill-Corley
- Calonice, a woman of Athens, wife of Bupalus: Erin Michelle Jones
- Myrrhine, a woman of Athens, wife of Cinesias: Lauren Beward
- Rhodippe, a woman of Corinth, wife of Micon: Mikki Barry
- Ismenia, a woman of Athens: Katie Wanschura
- Lampito, a woman of Sparta, wife of the Spartan Ambassador: Rebecca Hranj
- Stratyllis, a woman of Athens, wife of Philurges: Erica Smith
- Philurges, a man of Athens, husband of Stratyllis: Will Robey
- Bupalus, a man of Athens, husband of Calonice: Peter Orvetti
- Micon, a man of Corinth, husband of Rhodippe: Sidney Davis
- The Athenian Magistrate: Paul Davis
- The Athenian Magistrate (u/s): Michael McCarthy
- Cinesias, a man of Athens, husband of Myrrhine: Joshua Engel
- Honorary Member of Cinesias: Peter Orvetti
- Manes, slave of Cinesias and Myrrhine: Michael McCarthy
- The Spartan Ambassador, husband of Lampito: Gary Wynn
- The Spartan Ambassador, husband of Lampito (u/s): Wayne DeCesar
- Honorary Member of the Spartan Ambassador: Steve Calamia
- Honorary Member of the Athenian Magistrate: Peter Orvetti
The Crew (In No Order Whatsoever)
- Director: Jaki Demarest
- Assistant Director: Ed Starr
- Apprentice Director/Stage Manager: Adrian Southard
- Assistant Stage Manager: Morgan Talbot
- Producer: Joshua Engel
- Music Advisor: Tom McGrath
- Photographer: Rebecca Hranj
- Lights and Sound: Kris Andersen-Haag
- Swing Lights and Sound: Morgan Talbot
- Nothing: Alan Duda
- Production Design: Jaki Demarest
- Set painting: Joshua Engel
- Set painting: Stephen Duda
- Set painting: Jaki Demarest
Disclaimer: The Rude Mechanicals provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8436.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.