Phallic symbols abound in SU Drama’s take on the battle-of-thesexes comedy Lysistrata
Syracuse University Drama Department’s current show, Aristophanes’ sex comedy Lysistrata, opened in Athens circa 411 B.C. Director Stephen Cross’ dramaturgy in staging this oftenread, little-seen political exercise originates in Berlin, A.D. 1927. That was the era of in-your-face expressionism and Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect. That’s Verfremdung in German with a capital letter, which seems more appropriate here.
Nothing in this show ever stoops to petit bourgeois ingratiation. So we have non-stop talk about sex for about two hours, stylized penises, even a forced striptease (down to a body stocking), but not one pant of eroticism. The playwright’s celebrated raucousness is reduced to about a half-dozen laughs.
Actually, make that five laughs.
Director Cross shows his hand even before the action begins. As the audience is filing it, he has every cast member in costume parading clockwise around Ryan Shaule’s multilevel set. Costume designer Meggan Camp, who contributes mightily to Lysistrata’s effect, must have been asked to make players look as ugly as possible. All of them are completely individual. One woman’s breasts are literally miniature basketballs, in a net bag. One tall guy (Nicholas Petrovitch), apparently a hermaphrodite, sports a tall column of hair curlers, evocative of Marge Simpson. A group of females, later to be known as the Old Woman Chorus, are in shapeless housedresses with curlers or shower caps with colorless faces, certainly looking aged. One imagines that seen in the lobby after the show they are all unexpectedly lovely. One character (the program is unhelpful with names) is asked to thrust forward his tongue, a la Gene Simmons, only it’s painted green.
Players keep trudging, each with a different step or gait, well past the curtain time and then all though intermission, without breaking character. Unsmiling, most seem indifferent to the audience, although a few scowl. Eventually we discern certain players withdrawing and patterns of association emerging. Some act out the historical setting of the Peloponnesian War that had been raging 20 years when the play opened. This is wordless, a fusion of mime and expressive dance so as not to augment the original text. The opposing sides, program notes remind us, were the arts-loving Athenians and the comfort-hating Spartans. With characteristic visual wit, costumer Camp makes the Spartans red-staters and the Athenians blue.
Much of what is communicated in Lysistrata is visual rather than verbal. More is happening at any given moment than your eye can follow. Director Cross is a movement specialist, and together with choreographer Andrea Leigh-Smith, they set each player on an individual course with carefully measured steps. Lysistrata is a dance show, in ways that SU Drama Department favorites Anthony Salatino (Rent) or David Wanstreet (Cabaret) are not. There is no intent to delight. And what you see sometimes seems independent of the narrative, as would happen with Merce Cunningham or the Judson Dance Theatre. Instead, you are beguiled. But follow one character too closely and you’d lose track of the narrative.
The program never cites a translator of the text we hear, but whoever he, she or they were, the preference is for racy contemporary idiom. This is certainly preferable to the pseudo-Elizabethan we once had in translations from the Greek. Brecht and probably Aristophanes would have approved. It also opens director Cross’ door to introduce every kind of analogy to the world in which the audience lives. When one player calls out to the audience for someone to recite the United National Declaration of Human Rights and hears no takers, another player, a heavy, begins to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The translator appears not to have known Greek well. S/he renders the region to the west of Attica as Boetia and has it pronounced “boh-EEsha” whereas it is usually Boeotia and “BEE-osha.”
Eventually we get to the play’s famous premise, the one thing everyone knows about Lysistrata, even if they have never read it: the sex strike. All the women, Athenians and Spartans, pledge to withhold all intimacy until both sides give up the bloody and mutually destructive fighting. The title character (Milly Millhauser) first speaks up from a perch high in the audience. Although there are several strong vocal women on stage, her voice rises above the others, blunt and forceful: “From now on—no more penises for you.” Other voices join in both profanely, “I’ll be lying in bed without a dong,” and fancifully, “I will not point my slipper to the roof.”
Then again, as portrayed in this production, sexual intercourse is a grunting exercise more akin to the barnyard than the boudoir. Twice we see the women, fully clothed, on all fours, mounted or at least leaned up against by the men, also clothed, suggesting an analogy with a rider on a beast of burden, a donkey rather than a horse. It looks like sheer exploitation, as in the writings of Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin, not in those of Colette or Anita Shreve.
The men respond with volleys of misogyny, and it is not until the second act that they begin to acknowledge a painful sense of loss. The leader of the angry deprived males is called the Councilor (Amos Vander- Poel), the tallest member of the cast with the outline of macho accoutrements: shoulder pads from a football lineman, bib, black Doc Martin-ish boots, and in between bare hair skin interrupted by tiny white jockey briefs. As he continues, the Councilor becomes an embodiment of all that Aristophanes despises. Director Cross dresses him in an Uncle Sam top hat. Eventually, the women have their way with him, pasting his mouth shut with a sanitary napkin and fixing a red ball on his nose.
The reconciliation embodied by an unambiguously beautiful woman (Julie Grant) and the orderly waltz are short-lived, and soon men are back to their old bad habits.
Diffuse action makes it difficult to single out performances, but hard-talking Lampito (Kendall Cooper) in the black spikey wig and the taunting husband-and-wife team of Myrrhine (Tara Carbone) and Cinesias (Charlo Kirk) earn special applause.
Reviving any Greek play calls for risk, especially one as artistically adventuresome as this. Not everything works. The most striking failure is the handling of choral speaking, both male and female. Instead of having the chorus stand there and recite verse, Cross has them in motion and dispersed. Chorus members shout, but it’s still like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. The inability to follow the chorus was the subject of angry grumbling in the men’s room during intermission.
The sparse laughter at Aristophanes’ comedy does not mean this Lysistrata as a whole has failed. Addressing gender politics and the male penchant for making war instead of love are still issues that grip us.
This production runs through Sunday, Feb.27. See Times Table for information.
Getting the shaft: Cast members in SU Drama’s Lysistrata.