Lysistrata: The Dongs of War

From the moment Amy Lee Connell enters the opening scene as the title character, Lysistrata keeps the audience laughing as each outrageous episode of farce is followed by an even more outrageous one. At the incongruously-named Contemporary Theatre Company, this thoroughly modern and creative adaptation by Meg Perry of a 2,500 year-old satire by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes emphasizes the feminism and pacifism that, although not exactly as intended in the original, account for its popularity and continued relevance.

Using an all-female cast allows a surprising freedom in stretching the maleness of male characters to absurd lengths that would not work as well with male actors, giving an innovative twist to what otherwise might seem a well-trodden path of “battle of the sexes” classical drama. This is an especially effective thrust given that, in ancient Greece, the entire cast would have been male, including those playing female roles. In the original, Lysistrata is an asexual, masculinized woman, but Perry does not write her that way and Connell most emphatically does not play her that way: Connell’s Lysistrata is a sophisticated sexual force of nature.

The basic outline of the play is that the states of ancient Greece, including Athens and Sparta, have been locked for years in a series of wars that exhaust their resources and keep their warriors away from home for months at a time. The women of the warring states form a secret alliance among themselves to deny sexual relations to their husbands as a strong incentive to settle their differences and end the war. Athenian Lysistrata calls a meeting, enlisting first her friend Kleonike (Valerie Tarantino) and then Lampito (Amelia Giles) of Sparta and Myrrhine (Brynne Sawyer), who all pledge a mutual oath sealed by wine. Kleonike likes wine, perhaps more than she likes sex or fashion, and makes that abundantly clear.

Carrying out the plan of Lysistrata, the female chorus (Steph Rodger, Rebecca Magnotta, Giles) lay siege to the state treasury at the Acropolis while the male chorus (Laura Kennedy, Christine Cauchon, Ashley Macamaux, and Sawyer) bring wood to burn with the intention of driving away the women with smoke. The men make fire, but the women make water.

At first the men regard the sexual strike as a joke, assuming that the “weak” women will be unable to withstand their own desires, but it becomes clear that it is the men who will first be driven mad by unrequited lust. Kinesias (Magnotta) is reduced to a blubbering fool by his wife Myrrhine, performing what is effectively the earliest recorded striptease. Priapus (Macamaux) arrives looking for his wife Lampito, thus putting all in readiness for peace talks, negotiated by Lysistrata.

Connell is outstanding among a gifted ensemble, replacing the traditional portrayal of Lysistrata as a virginal priestess with a woman who knows the male psyche from experience. Tarantino as Kleonike is great fun to watch, the superficiality of the character contrasted against the earnest Lysistrata. Sawyer and Magnotta as the couple Myrrhine and Kinesias, respectively, are memorable together in one of the most ridiculous bedroom farce scenes ever. Giles as Lampito takes advantage of the modern mythos of Sparta in delivering stilted quasi-military syntax to good comic effect, later taking a more serious and elegaic tone a cappella.

This unusual Lysistrata is one of the funniest comedies you are likely to see, closer in spirit to the Marx Brothers than to ancient Greece. Like Duck Soup in the interwar period, Lysistrata was originally written and performed between two phases of a long conflict, indeed before the final stage of conflict that would doom the Athens of Aristophanes and its culture. The real Peloponnesian War that motivated the play devastated the ancient world, destroying Greece and ending its “golden age” in very much the same way that, 2,500 years later, World War I would destroy Europe and end its supremacy in world affairs. Both wars, ancient and modern, killed enough men to affect the gender ratios of their societies, leaving a surplus of women who had to find some way to survive as either widows or maidens without their own men.

Even amidst all of the risqué comedy, when Lysistrata talks of wool spinning and widowhood, the serious message resonates in our era as much as it did in hers. Two millennia before Sigmund Freud and “make love, not war,” Lysistrata tapped into the universal truth that wars are often substitutes for getting laid.

Lysistrata, directed by Ryan Hartigan, at the Contemporary Theatre Company, 327 Main St, Wakefield. Thu (5/21) $15, Fri (5/15, 5/22) $20, Sat (5/16, 5/23) $20, all 7pm and Sun (5/17) $15, 2pm. About 1h45m with intermission. Includes mature content, sexual themes and stylized phalluses. Tickets: contemporarytheatercompany.com/box-office/ or 401.218.0282.

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