Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lysistrata (2000)

Shannon McNamara, Arthur Grothe
Photo by Anthony Gray
"The version of Lysistrata you are about to witness comes at a time of particular economic strength in this country. The United States is not at war. People are making a lot of money, and nobody's losing his life on foreign soil. So, can Lysistrata only be performed when things are good? Is its original daringness never to be experienced by theater audiences again? Where is the radicalness of this play? What makes it worth seeing now, under these conditions?"
- David Bell, Lysistrata, Then and Now (Bad Epitaph production program)
In 1996, I picked up a copy of Aristophanes' Lysistrata at ABCDEFG Books in Camden, Maine. This edition was translated into verse in 1924 by the noted Australian Jack Lindsay, with illustrations by his father Norman Lindsay. One of the original hardcovers, this was exactly the kind of smutty book that would have been found indecent and its transmission through the U.S. Post illegal under the Comstock Act of 1873.

And this wasn't even the original. While Lindsay père created line drawings that are delightful and racy, featuring a collections of male and female characters naked or mostly naked, all actual genitalia are either (in the case of males) cast in dark shadows or (in the case of females) erased. You may interpret such censorship as you will.

The text of Lindsay fils, however, goes through an even more bizarre transformation. Reading it, I wasn't immediately compelled, for example, to produce it for the stage. It wasn't very funny, and though the sexual humor was apparent, it was so tame as to be virtually uninteresting. Later I found a paperback of Lindsay's translation that was published in the 1960s, and learned he had bowdlerized his own work! His original text, as published without fear of censorship, still includes innuendo and puns rather than outright obscenity ... but they're better.

The last major notable production of Lysistrata in Cleveland was the legendarily pilloried production at the Cleveland Play House in late 1970. That production was actually produced at a time America was at war, but as Tony Mastroianni reported in the Cleveland Press, "This is an anti-war play, basically, but it is difficult to find the message under all the sniggering and archness."

Cleveland Play House, 1970
Photo by Tom Prusha

Both he and Plain Dealer critic Peter Bellamy delivered the production a one-two punch the day after it opened (Bellamy called the production, "perverted" and "obscene") and reservations didn't merely dry up, people were calling the Play House to cancel. In what may have been the shortest run of any professional production in Cleveland, Lysistrata at the Play House had three performances and suspended the run.

Our new company, Bad Epitaph, was maintaining a streak of strongly-received productions. I had an idea at that time that we would produce a classic in the Spring and something contemporary in the fall, as far as we could take that. Having produced a Shakespeare as our inaugural production (Hamlet) I didn't want to return to the Bard again for as long as possible.

I found Lindsay's verse translation to be clever and funny, but possibly a little inaccessible to a modern audience. However, reading other, more recent translations, I realized that this was its strength. For example, the translation the Play House used thirty years earlier was by Douglass Parker, written in 1964, and that should tell you right there what went wrong. A jazz aficionado, Professor Parker strains to be hep and obvious with his sex jokes, and the entire script reads like an extended comedy sketch from Playboy After Dark.

But what is Lysistrata, anyway? Is it an anti-war argument, the purpose for which Aristophanes wrote it in 411 BCE? Is it one big sex comedy? Is it an Ur-feminist text, championing the strength and power of women? Or is it exactly the opposite of that -- as Mastroianni pointed out in his review, "What the Play House production misses in emphasizing the obvious is the underlying story of women desiring to resume normal domestic relations."

Lysistrata can be seen as a conservative piece of work; the women are refusing to have sex with their husbands until they abandon unending war and return home.

Also, at this point in history, I was only recently married, and my wife and I were making plans to have children. So my interest in staging a happy celebration of marriage, sex and procreation was also very personal.

Shannon McNamara, Alison Garrigan, Elaine Feagler
Photo by Anthony Gray
Director's Note:

There is no private domain of a person's life that is not political, and there is no political issue that is not ultimately personal.

- Charlotte Bunch

The Greeks invented Democracy, built the Acropolis, and then called it a day.
- David Sedaris
Bad Epitaph's production of Lysistrata opened on May 19, 2000, and it was very successful. The Plain Dealer called our production, Helter-skelter and often hilarious, the Free Times a high-spirited and campy romp, and Scene Magazine christened it that summer's first joyous work.

By closing night we were sold out - oversold, actually, adding more and more seats. That fall Bad Epitaph received a nomination for a Northern Ohio Live Magazine Award of Achievement, based largely on the success of Lysistrata. But that is the end of the story, not the beginning. 

I recently read over my notes from the rehearsal period, and learned some very important lessons that I had forgotten.

Christopher Bohan, Jennifer Wiech
Photo by Anthony Gray
My apprehension over producing a sex comedy were great. As a rule, sex just isn't funny, it's embarrassing. Case in point, the movie Exit To Eden, based on one of Anne Rice's soft porn novels. Director Garry Marshall wanted to make a gentle comedy that adults could enjoy together, but when it appeared the movie he was making wasn't going to appeal to anyone, he threw in a caper subplot (entirely unrelated to Rice's work) and cast Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd as detectives. What was merely cheesy swiftly became crass.

One of the few exceptions to this rule is The Tall Guy featuring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson in the funniest sex scene every committed to film. And I've seen The Room.

I must have been inspired also by my recent experience performing in The Compleat Wks of Wllm Skhspr (abridged) at Beck Center. When Roger Truesdell cast two of the funniest men in Cleveland, Allen Branstein and Nick Koesters and then chose me to round out the trio, I thought he was insane because I am not funny. The experience was a crash course in what funny is or can be, and I took a (un)healthy dose of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ethos of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and thought I would try it with this 2,400 year old Greek comedy.

The production company was solid, Don McBride build to order an Acropolis that doubled as the set from Laugh-In, with balconies and shuttered windows that open and close. Ali Garrigan - our Lysistrata - designed contemporary costumes, and Brian Pedaci the numerous ridiculous props, some of which he procured from places like Chain Link Addiction.

I had invaluable assistance from my dramaturg David Bell (who provided all sources below) who provided not only a bottomless well of theater history, but was also my confidant during the darkest parts of the rehearsal process and was very insightful as to what was not working and reminding me what was.

And, of course ... it was a musical! As we assume, the ancient Greeks used song to convey strong messages, and so did we. Following my suggestion that this story plays itself out everywhere, all the time, our composer Dennis Yurich shaped Linday's verse into the lyrics for eight songs that were Goth, rock, ska, country, even a nod to the Andrews Sisters.

Of course, what everyone really remembers is the nudity. I know artists who have strong, negative opinions about nudity onstage, that it breaks down suspension of disbelief in a way that nudity on screen does not. Frankly, I think the opposite - that film celebrates unhealthy body types and calculated audience response in a way that a live naked human performing in a play does not.

That doesn't mean I wasn't eeked out by casting a play where I was asking actors how much they would or would not disrobe onstage. I knew from experience in other productions that it was best to be very specific up front, and to set a date when we would commence "show conditions".

Clyde Simon, Alison Garrigan
Photo by Anthony Gray
My rehearsal journals remind me how horribly self-conscious and unfunny everything was proceeding through the month of April. I was positive I was going to drop a large turd onto the stage of Cleveland Public Theatre (the company which we had made a healthy arrangement to perform) until the first of May. 

May Day we played the scenes where the men and women stripped to fight ... and suddenly the show was ridiculous! Not dirty, just happy, funny stupid, which is pretty much how we rode through the rest of the experience.

In addition to his praise, Tony Brown also called the show "sloppy", and it was literally sloppy, with buckets of actual water dumped onto Nick, Chris and Rob as they scurried around in jackstraps fitted with brightly-colored erections. Our Lysistrata came onstage for the interval with a mop. Opening night, one other writer for the Plain Dealer sniffed, "Well, it's not Aristophanes." There were also more than the usual backstage pranks throughout the run, some which during any other production would have been brought up with Human Resources.

By and large, it was a festive, funny and inoffensive anti-war play. Just before we really needed one.

Revival Ruins Greek Play by Tony Mastroianni, Cleveland Press, Dec. 5, 1970
'Lysistrata' at Play House Plumbs Depths of Vulgarity by Peter Bellamy, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 5, 1970
Photo of Ronald Greene and Myriam Lipari as Kinesias and Myrrhina, Cleveland Press, 1970 (date unknown)
Revelry Abounds In Bad Epitaph's Version of 'Lysistrata' by Tony Brown, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 22, 2000
Rowdy Romps by Amy Bracken Sparks, The Free Times, May 24, 2000
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Keith Joseph, Scene Magazine, June 1, 2000

No comments:

Post a Comment