News Column

In this 'Lysistrata,' sex and war don't mix

July 26, 2013

YellowBrix

July 26--The ancient Greek farce "Lysistrata" is not just hospitable to bawdy humor. It demands it. After all, this 411 B.C. romp by Aristophanes is about lusty women who go on a sex strike until their husbands end a long, bloody war. And do they ever tease and bully those boys into submission.

Yet somewhere along the line, those behind Intiman Theatre Festival's enthusiastically raunchy update of the play forgot a cardinal rule of comedy: Don't repeat the same gags over and over. Especially when they involve brandishing plastic phalluses.

Granted, the Old Comedy farces of ancient Athens were packed with graphic jokes, suggestive slapstick and hormone-charged satire of sexual (and political) mores.

In the final show opening in Intiman's four-play fest, adapters Sheila Daniels and her gung-ho cast go for the gusto, with crude shtick and lascivious cavorting galore. And, rather soon, enough is enough.

Here "Lysistrata" is framed as an entertainment for and by American soldiers, posted in a place where the U.S. is embroiled in a long, bloody war (Iraq? Afghanistan?).

Could active duty GIs stage a flagrantly lewd and pacifist comedy without censure?

Just go with it, and accept that flaming female hotties garbed like Vegas showgirls are waging this battle of the sexes. They're urged to join the crusade started by the firebrand Lysistra. Played with vigor and charisma by Shontina Vernon, Lysistrata has the right stuff to convert trash-talkin', sexed-up babes to (temporary) abstinence.

Their men, raging misogynists all, decry and ridicule the revolt but are no match for their wives -- who talk and fight dirty, kick 'em where it hurts most (ouch), and don't put out until the Athenians and Spartans agree to end the grueling Peloponnesian War.

The gist and many particulars of the lusty Aristophanes text are retained. Male vanity and female foibles are mocked, often by haranguing elders (led by Charles Leggett and Marty Mukhalian). Graphic puns, and references to a "lioness on the cheese grater" sexual position, are voiced.

The classic, scripted stunts include the "bagging" humiliation of chauvinist town magistrate Archon (Matt Reed), and taunting of the, ahem, hard-up Cinesias (Tim Gouran) by his bawdy spouse Myrrhine (Kamaria Hallums-Harris).

Iambic hexameter verse is integrated with rap-style couplets. And, most enjoyably, karaoke scraps of germane girl-power pop hits by the likes of Destiny's Child and Pink are sung out with brio by Lysistrata and her posse, clad in Harmony Arnold's outrageous costumes. (Note: the sound, amplified and live, was glitchy on opening night.)

So what's awry? Cranking up the clowning to 10 and keeping it there. Shrill, horny female caricatures, and panting male buffoons becoming unfunny boors. And a lack of textured sensuality and subtler shades of wit. (Against the epidemic of sexual assaults against women in our armed forces, all the hot-and-heavy jokes are a bit disconcerting.)

The respected, accomplished Daniels has previously explored the ravages of war via searing Greek tragedies.

Ultimately she steers "Lysistrata" out of ribald farce into the real horrors of combat. But it's too late, and too abrupt, to turn tiresome jesters into actual, vulnerable human beings.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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