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Party On: Lysistrata at the American Repertory Theatre - Theater 33:2 Theater 33.2 (2003) 100-101
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Lysistrata at the American Repertory Theatre
Amy Strahler Holzapfel
America's military response to the attack on the World Trade Center. . . made our choice of an anti-war play seem instantly questionable.
Last season's production of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, directed by Andrei Serban, was intended as a tribute to Robert Brustein's twenty-three years as artistic director of the American Repertory Theater (ART). But with American forces fighting in Afghanistan by the time the show had opened, it was difficult to view the play as anything other than an apt reminder of the absurdities of war.
Set beneath a towering gray Acropolis designed by Michael Yeargan, the production opened to the boyish musical riffs of composer Galt MacDermot—best known for his Hair score—and lyricist Matty Selman. Enter a white toga-clad Lysistrata, played by the ever cheery Cherry Jones, a longtime ART veteran and friend of Brustein's. Though Germaine Greer once saw Lysistrata, whose name means "Disbander of Armies," as little more than a liberal advocate of pussy power, she has nevertheless been heralded as one of Western drama's rare protofeminist characters. Jones portrayed her with a combination of the modesty of Major Barbara and the goofiness of Lucille Ball, aided by a translation and adaptation of Lysistrata made suitable for a church supper.
Ever the "auteur-director," it is fitting that, at the last minute, Brustein ousted the originally commissioned adapter—M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart—for making the play "too dirty." What better way of wrapping up his ART tenure than by descending from the heights as the deus ex machina of theatrical collaboration? Downplaying such interventions, Brustein wrote in his program note: "Lysistrata proves, I hope, my long-held belief that if a group of individualistic, strong-minded artists can form into a unified company working towards a common goal—later joined by that larger collective called the audience—then there is hope for society as a whole."
A happy idea, but if this production of Lysistrata was any example of collective achievement, we are unfortunately no better off than the Greeks were at the close of their empire three thousand years ago. Written in 411 B.C.E. during the ongoing war between Greece and Sparta, Lysistrata offers a more pragmatic solution to end international strife than either Peace or The Archanians, two of Aristophanes' earlier antiwar satires. No need for magic wine or a ride to heaven; in this case, all Lysistrata and her compatriot wives must do to get the men to stop fighting is to withhold sex. Such a naive vision of peace is, of course, a "phallus-y," as was the idea that the Greek city-states would ever cease their internal fighting. As the bumbling chorus of Elder Men, lead by the notorious Alvin Epstein, sings to the audience: "What do women know about war and peace?"
Apparently not much, as both Lysistrata and her band of floozies attested. Bearing knitting needles as weapons and nearly tripping over themselves with their high-heeled pumps, the women jumped and giggled about the stage like the hysterical girl-chorus of Annie. Although cast members Stephanie Roth Habberly, who played the Spartan Lampito with fake bulging muscles and an amusing Arnold Schwarzenegger accent (no less a male fantasy than her ultrafeminized compatriots), and Will LeBow, as the big-headed president of the Athenian Senate, rallied to this Brooksian humor, the general feeling was one of forced enthusiasm bordering on manic glee. One of the few moments when the production attained some noticeable depth occurred when Jones stepped out into the audience to give a speech regarding the dehumanization of war: "When bodies are buried afar, a part of us is buried [End Page 100] there, too." She spoke simply, evoking the image and memory of not only those bodies buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center but also those in Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine.
As soon as Jones leapt back on stage, however, the production became...