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We don't routinely review student shows in these pages but the Artists of Concordia Theatre (ACT) production of the satiric Greek sex comedy Lysistrata looked promising — definitely something a bit different. So I attended the opening.
I fondly remember how my generation connected with this ancient play while I was in college during the Vietnam War. Though it was first performed 2,500 years ago, it's a spin on the much-beloved hippie tenet: "Make love, not war." During the 1960s, those of us who opposed the war were convinced that if only folks got laid more often, there would be far less violence in the world.
This comedy about an anti-war sex strike showed one woman's mission to end the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) between Athens and Sparta. Lysistrata persuades her fellow Grecian women to withhold all sexual activity from their men as a way of forcing them to negotiate peace. This strategy, in the male-dominated society, inflames a huge battle between the sexes.
It's such a lively, contemporary-looking production, I'm not certain Aristophanes, often called "The Father of Comedy," would recognize his own play, but I'm sure he'd enjoy it. This fast-paced 90-minute show, boldly directed by Melissa Lorraine, is brought to energetic life by a talented, versatile young cast. There is poetry and passion, dark humor, music — and dancing.
Jayme McGhan's contemporary urban set is covered with graffiti, is highlighted with tiny lights, and even includes a burning trash can. Becca Eifert's lighting is especially emphatic and integral. The background soundtrack is a musical collage that ranges from James Brown and "When You Wish Upon a Star" to the theme from The Magnificent 7 and "Tea For Two."
Before the show begins, there's a funny clown character (Matt Bender) roving around in the aisles doing tricks and establishing a circus-like atmosphere. For a moment it seems like we were about to see Pippin or Godspell. Simultaneously we hear machine guns, helicopters, and loud explosions. A British woman's voice drones on, delivering some monotone lecture about male and female genitalia.
War and sex are what this show is all about.
A note in the program from Jason A. Narvy, ACT's artistic director, says: "Let's face facts — this current generation of college students has grown up entirely under the shadow of the longest war in American history."
Though this production probably won't endear itself to classicists, there is never extreme vulgarity and there's no nudity. It's noisy and frenetic adult fare but although this adaptation of Aristophanes' dialogue contains plenty of saucy innuendos, it's never crudely offensive. There's even an ongoing bit where any truly dirty word gets loudly bleeped out. Perhaps this is funny the first 8 or 10 times but the gimmick grows tedious.
Originally, in ancient Greek productions, the male characters wore enormous erect leather phalluses. Here the guys grasp big inflatable plastic "pencils" like children might play with on the beach. We recognize the phallic imagery but the almost Charlie Brown innocence undermines the gross-out sight gag.
Aristophanes loaded his comedy with lots of biting satire about Greek politicians but this stuff means nothing to us now. It would be like trying to make sense out of an episode of Saturday Night Live in a couple thousand years. So his script, written during the 18th year of the Peloponnesian War, is always adapted to fit our times and the wars at hand.
In the title role, Rachel Hamrick gives Lysistrata a headstrong, authoritative presence. Convinced that a man's libido is ultimately his driving force in life, she comes up with an interesting strategy: Deny men sex until they end the war. The women are certain that the brains of men are, generally speaking, located in their mid-section. After she rallies her troops, the women become stronger and more confident.
Lysistrata has a double strategy: in addition to withholding sex from their men, the soldiers' wives seize the Acropolis and barricade themselves inside. The Acropolis was Athens' financial center, so without sex and money, these Greek guys are truly hurting. And the men are not portrayed as particularly bright.
But it's difficult, too, for the women to give up sex. Lysistrata has to keep her troops focused in order to stop them from sneaking off for a quickie.
The cast is too large to single out many specific performances for special notice, but two couples, Thomas Caldwell and Kati Jendraszak, and Geordie Denholm and Micah Streubel, are especially strong.
It's been years since I've read this play, but liberties seem to be taken, especially with the ending. I also recall a chorus of horny old geezers, but where do you find such older male performers in a college unless you draft faculty members?
Aristophanes chose to write comedies instead of tragedies, convinced his audience would be more inclined to implement change after laughing heartily at the absurdity of the situation. That he could produce such a play during wartime shows how free-thinking the Greeks were.
Lysistrata is raucous good fun with a universal message, delivered by an exuberant cast. The production of Aristophanes' most popular play runs an hour-and-a-half with no intermission.
The wild, helter-skelter costumes are by Robert Kuhn. Alexandria Otter is the stage manager.
Though the show is presented by the Artists of Concordia Theatre it's not performed at their River Forest campus. It's playing at Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St., in Oak Park. You have only this weekend to see it.
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