LYSISTRATA: Entertaining Battle of the Sexes

by Jack Shaw

The Dead Playwrights Repertory’s performance of Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA takes great strides to make sure the modern audience is aware of all the exaggeration and sight gags needed in that classic Greek comedy to help it appreciate the point. This includes the addition of modern music and song, as well as improvisation. The result: the audience was truly entertained by this bawdy “battle of the sexes.”

Carol Schwab, Wendie Hetherington and Michelle Caponas in a scene from the Dead Playwrights Repertory production of LYSISTRATA, running in Haddonfield NJ through October 23.

Although the play is about wives withholding sex until their men agree to stop war, it is neither a feminist nor pacifist play. Modern versions of this play point often to either sentiment, but the original play did not do that at all. It is because of its subject matter, perhaps, reflecting the times, Aristophanes’ intent was to show women doing things that women were not supposed to do. Women were considered the more hedonistic of the two sexes, easily influenced and needing to be taken care of. Women needed to be controlled, and since the men aren’t there, it is up to Lysistrata to control them. The women assume power and wield it only until the men come to their senses. The unique theme for the ancient Greeks: the use of sex in politics. That Aristophanes often used the unexpected members of society to share his message gives us reason to hold this view. For example, he uses a fruit monger in one of his later plays as the principle character. In the case of LYSISTRATA, it is the character of the same name, a member of a lesser class since she is a woman.

The language is frank; the style is Greek–mostly. I say “mostly” because there seemed to be much added that wouldn’t have been in the original like modern music and improvisation. The costumes were Greek in nature, and most of Aristophanes’ words are spoken, but it seems a great deal was cut. For example, the historical references. At times, the acting is very engaging and other times it is a recitation of the classic. It is perhaps these times that the traditional approach sets the audience up for a flurry of words. Not all can drive the action, although I admit it would be nice.

I liked the chorus of men that encircled the audience from time to time and chanted their lines, and the women who taunted and tempted the men until they couldn’t take it anymore. I am glad the sexual displays, of which there are plenty, were left to the imagination.

The staging was interesting, with the actors using the entire thrust in front of and in back of the audience. In theatre, moves like that are always risky. Aristophanes is famous because of his early risk taking with play structure and subject matter. In fact, one of his firsts was to divide the chorus into two bodies–in this case–men and women. He broke with the accepted style guide you might say. I would suppose that would give a theatre group sufficient justification to break with tradition as well, although I think there may have been many of Aristophanes’ meanings that were swallowed up with American shtick.

Shtick. That is the problem with dressing up a classic to fit in the modern world. It’s easy to add too much. Would you do the same with a tragedy? Can you? I think comedy allows more flexibility. In tragedy you add action, but that action is the result of an interpretation of lines and therefore the lines are enhanced as well. I want to see what this group does with tragedy now that I’ve seen how creative they are with comedy. As a critic I tend to look at productions and performance in terms of how well the intentions of the playwright are met or exceeded. Because of the mix of styles and added elements, I’m not sure there is a direct correlation here. So, I’ll reserve judgment until I have another gauge with which to measure.

The Dead Playwrights Repertory theatre company does not take themselves too seriously or they couldn’t perform the works of William Shakespeare or Aristophanes and modernize them with a straight face. At least with the comedies. With comedy the classic rules seem less rigid. You can take chances. I can’t say the vision to avoid the depth of the playwright in favor of laughs here was a bad thing; the audience was definitely amused and so was I. The clear-headed thinker and lover of classic theatre in me has a different view.

While I appreciate the approach to make a classic work more palatable or comprehensible to a modern audience, we aren’t giving the audience the credit for attempting to understand the original literature. I’m sure the performers in 411 B.C. demonstrated many of the lines with the same audacity, and entertained audiences with their wit and wickedness in much the same way as today.

However, our frame of references are different, as is the style or presentation we are used to. The earliest production certainly used some of the same physical action. Would that have worked for us today? It’s possible. It’s also possible, audiences would miss the references since Aristophanes made references to local events and recent history just as we do in our literature and plays today. But they had the frame of reference to get the full value of the playwrights meaning.

The language is often crude and intended to be. For Shakespearean comedies we see prose and badly rhymed verse. With the Greeks, after the obvious comedy, the serious words must be left alone, not trivialized with overt action, because it is time for our lesson.

Director Douglas Overtoom consistently kept the outrageous physical comedy and sight gags to Aristophanes’ cruder and exaggerated passages. This is a good thing because the audience was entertained. However, that the primary goal of this group is to make the classics more accessible to a modern audience is a positive, I worry appreciation of the playwrights themselves may get short shrift. LYSISTRATA is worth seeing and this group, the Dead Playwrights Repertory bears watching.

By William Shakespeare
By Aristophanes
Both Directed by Douglas Overtoom
October 7-23, 2011
For tickets, contact:
Carol Schwab
Dead Playwrights Repertory

You may also like

Leave a Reply