Arts Listings

The Theater: Actors Ensemble Presents ‘Lysistrata’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 17, 2007

After the audience has been seated in Live Oak Theatre to a medley of old hits arranged thematically, like “Prisoner of Love,” “It’s a Man’s World,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and “I’m Glad That You’re Sorry Now” (as well as “Please, Please, Please,” particularly poignant), there’s a drumroll, some commotion behind—and strange glances under the hem of—the draped red curtain, then the entrance of the masked chorus, two young women who toss their masks into the audience with, “Okay, we’re, like, the chorus ... 411—a very bad year to be an Athenian. It’s sucky!” 

And translator Ellen McLaughlin’s version of Aristophanes’ ancient antiwar comedy Lysistrata shifts into gear, produced by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley as part of their 50th anniversary season. Playgoers may remember Aurora’s production of McLaughlin’s version of Aeschylus’ tragedy The Persians, in which the shattered armies of the Persian Empire return after their defeat at the hands of the Greeks. Lysistrata—long the premiere anti-war drama of the West, especially in modern times since the days of the Popular Front—is another event in her refashioning of the classics for use in the controversies over the war in Iraq. 

Lysistrata is clearly the more adapted of the two. The Persians emphasized a spare elegance, a lyrical complaint against the fate of warriors and the hubris of leaders that could reach and hold a modern audience. Lysistrata is pared down and played fast so that the racy comedy becomes updated and slangy, rife with half-references to the contemporary. 

“I hate women!” declares Lysistrata (Cristina Arriola). “Everything men say about us is true!” She’s summoned Greek women from the warring city states, two decades into a military deadlock that originally was touted to be “over in a few months.”  

So far, none has shown up. In a little bit, they arrive, puzzled by Lysistrata’s urgency. She asks them if their husbands are away, fighting each other and if they live an existence both scared and bored, just sitting at home. Wouldn’t they give up anything to end the strife? Would they give up sex, at least until their husbands agree to peace? Not really, they say—”Why do you think we miss our husbands so much?” 

But Lysistrata’s convincing, and her conspiracy of abstinence prevails, as a troop of war widows takes the Acropolis and the Athenian treasury. A detachment of “geezers,” grotesquely deformed with age and complaining, fail to dislodge the female protestors, and are stared down by the widows, dressed as old crones. 

So another deadlock ensues, until the groans of the (literally, anatomically) overextended troops, come home to settle up with their better halves, sound out through Athens. Lysistrata’s mission is now to keep the equally anxious wives from breaking ranks and going AWOL, making excuses of shellfish beds to be harvested, wool yarn left at the mercy of moths to be saved. 

The cast is spirited, the action upbeat, though occasionally in ensemble scenes both the rhthym and vocal clarity are lost. But the best vignettes work well, with excellent sets and decor (hanging mobiles of what look like twisted paper pages, catching the light) by Paul Andrew Hayes, equaled by Helen Slomowitz’s elegant costuming, adding immeasurably to the effect. 

Best sequences include the standoff debate between Lysistrata and the old politico Magistrate (David Cohen): “Let’s talk about money, shall we? ... It turns out we have something you want.” She swears that until “peace breaks out,” the women will “bring no more children into the world as fodder for war.” To his outcry of “This is unnatural!” and further accusations of lack of patriotism, she replies, “we have no monopoly on excess and evil. There are assholes everywhere ... we must master our own egotism.” 

Later, soldier Cinesias pops in, wryly preceded by his distended ... get-up? rigging? cleverly fashioned of cinched and bulging balloons of the sort carnies make animals out of. (Later, in full battle gear, the erect Spartans were a bit reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s bawdy illustrations of Aristophanes, once condemned as pornographic.) 

Eden Nelson, as Cinesias’ wife, Myrrhine, is fine in portraying a woman who is torn between two intentions, increasingly upset and aroused as she leads on, teases (”I can’t get in the mood when there’s a war going on.”) and finally leaves her obviously agonized husband (Sean Kelly) in the lurch. 

Saltiest of all is the female chorus, Emily Broderick and Melissa Craven, disco-dancing mechanically or down on all fours, mimicking the women as cats in heat, as Lysistrata routs them with a spray bottle. 

“Life ... face it. It’s always been a female conspiracy.” When the accord’s reached, the celebration can begin, topped only by the curtain call, when the men bow, yet remain at attention. 




Presented by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley through May 12 at Live Oak Theatre.  

1301 Shattuck Ave. $12. 525-1620.