If you love to be enraged by art like Phoenix Art Museum's recent exhibit about the American flag or the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, you really should head over to Mercury Theater in Mesa to catch the granddaddy of all in-your-face concupiscence, Aristophanes' ribald comedy Lysistrata. In this play, the Lenny Bruce of ancient Greece managed to blend obscenity and patriotism into a deliciously wicked lollipop that nailed the hypocritical moral guardians of his time. Its power is undiminished, even in this uneven production.
Lysistrata is especially remarkable because it is so much braver than, say, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's peace protests, or Jane Fonda's and Vanessa Redgrave's support of unpopular causes. Such gadflies of the modern body politic are direct descendants of Aristophanes, who attacked the wisdom of a war that had raged for 20 years when he wrote Lysistrata in 411 B.C. (a war the Athenians eventually lost to the Spartans). Across the centuries, through the mystifying distance of vast cultural disparities, Aristophanes still reaches us--albeit in broad strokes.
At the southern edge of Mesa, there is a shopping mall, a sort of modern equivalent of the agora of ancient Athens, that is the home of the aptly named Unlikely Theater Company. In that unlikely location, you can now catch this scandalous enterprise--if you can still get a seat: The performance I saw was sold out.
Sketchily lighted by household bulbs in tin reflectors, the action begins. A tall, willowy blonde enters with a silver goblet that she lifts to the heavens and drains with a smack of lips: "Ah! Good wine!" This is Lysistrata, the independent woman who is sick of Athens' extended war against Sparta. She anticipates a convocation of women from all over the Peloponnesian peninsula. When a hung-over black woman named Kalonike staggers on with glitter in her hair, Lysistrata wryly remarks: "That's the problem with Athens: Every day is a toga party."
Kalonike complains about being called to a noon meeting: "What are we doing up so early?" Although she concurs with Lysistrata's concerns about the war, she whines: "What can women do in our society?"
Lysistrata has a plan. All the women of Greece must withhold sexual intercourse until the men agree to peace. She intends to draft the enemy wives from Sparta and Thebes into her scheme.
The women reluctantly agree, and they take over the Parthenon, the treasure house of the Athenian army. Subsequently, the women find the bargain a hard one to keep. They keep coming up with lame excuses to leave the Acropolis for a few minutes so they can get laid, "To forestall what we call in Sparta hot monkey love." But Lysistrata steels their resolve by pointing out how different history would be if Helen of Troy had just said, "No!"
Presently, the men begin to appear with phallic tumescence, begging for an end to the sexual boycott. A man penetrates the temple posing as a eunuch, but is foiled by Lysistrata. Two men scrape together a cow costume, announcing that they are Zeus disguised as a bull. The women jeer, dismissing them as a Trojan cow. Indignant, the head man proclaims: "I am Zeus, the Thunderer." His rear end speaks up: "I'll say! You just had to eat that baba ghanouj!"
Eventually, unable to abstain any longer, the men agree to the peace plan proposed by Lysistrata.
Michael Fenlason's irreverently sparkling adaptation is filled with contemporary commentary. For example, as one of the women wriggles suggestively, a man cheers her on: "Support the arts!" When another demands of his wife: "Why do you act this way?" she replies: "I took a Judy Rollins class--I'm method." The dialogue zings with a kind of satiric chauvinism, such as this prayer: "Grant us victory, male supremacy and a testimonial plaque."
When one of the women objects to the men's shit, the men piously complain: "Is this what freedom of speech has brought us--that our women can say shit?" The women retort: "Men have been speaking shit for years and women have had to put up with it."
Unfortunately, Fenlason's directorial style is crude and unimaginative, lacking the artful humor required by the cheekiness of the text. The cast members are essentially lined up across the stage and they play their lines to the audience, rather than to each other.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of presenting a contemporary Lysistrata is to find an outrageous but legal way to depict the gigantic erections that plague the male members of the cast. The pathetic costumes are mercifully uncredited and the protrusions beneath the togas that are meant to suggest erect penises are curiously concave on the ends. Still, the humor survives. The sight gag of the men with erections is enhanced by lines like: "What's up?" "Oh, just hanging out."
The cast is game, if not skilled. The role of the Commissioner is played by John Michael Slook with a kind of Tim Allen approach from Home Improvement. Kinesias is played by a hunky black actor named Anthony Andrews, who announces with some dignity as he strips down to his handsome shorts: "I auditioned for this part."
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Lisa Catoni rolls her eyes as Myrrine in an effort to produce a comic effect, but fails. Most effective is probably Elizabeth Peterson in the title role, because she is always pleasant to look at and sustains the obligations of exposition gracefully.
The performance runs just more than an hour and includes an intermission. Lysistrata has shocked audiences into clear thinking for 2,407 years, and it's not too late to be enlightened. But hurry before the vice squad hunkers down. As one of the characters astutely observes: "This isn't the most liberal part of Athens."
--Marshall W. Mason
Mercury Theater's production of Lysistrata continues through Saturday, July 13, at Mesa's Unlikely Theater Company, 2950 South Alma School, Suite 6.