Matthew Reddin

Smart, modern “Lysistrata” deserves your vote

Fools for Tragedy's production of the ancient Greek comedy gets the sexually brash but sharply insightful tone just right.

By - Mar 15th, 2013 04:57 pm
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The women of “Lysistrata” (from left, Laura Holterman, Michelle White, Jen Gaul and Amber Smith) unite to stop the Greeks from warring by refusing to sleep with them.

I generally keep my voting intentions out of my reviews, but today I just can’t help it. I’ve got a new favorite candidate for 2016, campaigning on an anti-war campaign with a twist. The only problem: she’s the fictional Lysistrata, a heroine born long, long ago in 411 B.C.,from the mind of dramatist Aristophanes.

But Lysistrata is alive, well and hilarious here in Milwaukee, thanks to the valiant efforts of Fools for Tragedy, an emerging Milwaukee theater group led by artistic director Jordan Gwiazdowski. They’ve brought the city a smart, modern take on the ancient Greek sex comedy (an Ian Johnston translation), which takes more than a few thrusts at the current state of political affairs but never abstains from the most important plank of its party platform: wit and laughter.

Abstinence may be a bit of a sore subject for some of the cast members, given the plan set in motion by the titular lead (Jen Gaul). In the midst of an endless war, where each man-led military move is worse than the last, she gathers together her closest female allies – fashion-conscious neighbor Calonice (Amber Smith), edgy Spartan friend Lampito (Laura Holterman) and the young, disinterested Myrhinne (Michelle White) – and forces them and the women of Greece to swear a sacred oath: never to sleep with a man until peace is made.

The women’s reaction to such a demand encapsulates the spirit of Gwiazdowski’s production: they freak out, scattering about the stage and screaming like startled birds, all to the accompaniment of audience laughter.

Jen Gaul, as Lysistrata, transforms from a hesitant advocate to an inspiring revolutionary over the play, providing one of the night’s strongest performances.

Because, yes, you could play Lysistrata straight (or mostly straight, at least) but this Fools for Tragedy production seems designed to ask “why bother?” It’s more fun when the women are a little bit the vacuous sex maniacs Aristophanes’ original script paints them as – especially Smith, who revels in fulfilling every ’50s and ‘60s housewife stereotype with a wink of the eye. Lysistrata’s men (Gwiazdowski and Robby McGhee) are cartoonish too, eschewing the oversized phalluses which are occasionally (and possibly, originally) attached to the play’s latter scenes in exchange for just-enough-to-laugh-at stand-in erections and oversized acting instead. And the old lady who helps out her younger allies – well, Laura McDonald’s antics have to be seen to be believed.

Of course it’s near-impossible to do a modern-day production of Lysistrata without taking a feminist tack, and rightly so. With Gaul at the helm, there’s nothing to fear. Her Lysistrata begins as a mousy, anxious woman who comes off as little more than a librarian or professor asked to speak at a public forum, but as she takes on her role as leader – one her society pushes her away from, as it still does often to this day – she blossoms, becoming a Che-esque revolutionary and taking her rightful place.

That transformation would easily be the best thing about the play, were it not for White and Gwiazdowski appropriately stealing its thunder with a husband and wife “seduction” scene. If you’ve read or seen Lysistrata before you know the one – it’s iconic – but White makes the protracted teasing and titillation of her desperate lover seem fresh and new, her affected innocence and need to make the moment right with blankets, pillows and perfumes a perfect complement to Gwiazdowski’s anguished, increasingly pathetic cries of anguish.

While the staging is minimalist by and large, when it steps beyond simple chairs and white podiums it’s clear the show’s tone has seeped into that as well, from the haphazardly strewn wall posters and a clever bit of trickery which gives Calonice the appearance of a comically bottomless purse to an easel with cute (then cutely crude) illustrations for Lysistrata’s presentation, and a map of Greece that – you know what, I’ll let you see that one for yourself.

The only true regret I had with the production is its length; the adaptation only measures about an hour and a half tops, including intermission. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made here, but I’ll leave it to this cast. They’re great at that sort of thing.

Fools for Tragedy’s production of Lysistrata will run at Carte Blanche Studios through March 23. If the review hasn’t suggested it already, the play is recommended for mature audiences. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online or at the door.

0 thoughts on “Smart, modern “Lysistrata” deserves your vote”

  1. Anonymous says:

    An article is not the place to give key elements but it would seem fitting if FEMEN played some role in the presentation of “Lysistrata”.

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