Grotesque fat suits, vibrant exaggerated masks, and throbbing cocks flopping about. These are the things that should come to mind when one thinks of an Aristophanic comedy. So named after the only extant comic of Classical Athens, Old Comedy reveled in the raunchy and absurd, all the while holding up a mirror to the civic body and harshly critiquing its follies with colour and wit.
Lysistrata, originally produced at Athens in 411BC, is considered to be one of Aristophanes’ peace plays. A popular theme for the poet, Athens had been embroiled in the historic Peloponnesian War against Sparta for quite some time and at great expense. In Lysistrata, the eponymous character rallies together the women from all regions and allegiances of Greece and begins a sex strike until peace between the two cities is attained. Only then will the men of Greece finally be able to ease their egregious erections in the equally as eager embraces of their women.
Although the play is time-locked with heavy political and wartime undertones specific to the Classical Greek world, Lysistrata nevertheless manages to maintain an element of timelessness, perhaps even above Aristophanes’ other plays. The reason for this is that, while Athens has long since fallen from grace, sex and war are still around and don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. And as befits a proper Old Comedy, especially one about a sex strike, virtually every line is laced with sexual innuendo and raunchy humour. Some of it perhaps a bit arcane (how many people are likely to know about Helen saving her skin by exposing it to Menelaus?), most of it pretty overt, what with the aforementioned floppy cocks.
However the truth of the matter is that Old Comedy was a competitive affair, and success for the poet was equally as dependent on laugh-out-loud silliness as it was on intrinsically linking it to the immediate context and community. As such these comic scripts are littered with barbs against prominent Athenian politicians and lampoons of traditional mythology. Common knowledge to your average late fifth century Athenian citizen, but far from intelligible to anyone except the diehard classicists of today.
Thankfully for the everyman, this production of Lysistrata actually goes to considerable lengths to ease this disconnect. There are no Old Comedy staples of fat suits and masks – those would probably be too alarming and elicit questions, not necessarily laughs. The central competing choruses of old men and women are also reduced and written into supporting characters, presumably since the lovely outdoor theatre space seems to be too small for the full effect. Even the grand closing set piece of the original text – a stunningly beautiful nude woman whom the Spartan and Athenian delegates ogle while analogizing her lovely bits to Greek geography – is nixed for reasons obvious, but no less unfortunate. But I suppose that’s enough about what Lysistrata gets wrong.
So what’s right with the production? Despite all the necessary divergences from the original drama and the addition of a ragtag bathhouse cleaning crew of ladies, the core story is essentially identical and more or less faithfully recreates the best sequences of the original. The contest between the women and the local magistrate with his four Scythian archers is featured, as are the foiled escape attempts of a trio of women from their stronghold for a quickie. Most fortunate of all, the playful teasing of Cinesias and the withholding of sex by his wife Myrrhine is faithfully recreated in what’s surely the highlight of the show. The cast also performed exceptionally well and with appreciable vigour, certainly rising to the peculiar challenges of staging an Aristophanic comedy.
Unfortunately, these positives just mean that Lysistrata is a good play, not necessarily a good Old Comedy production. The biggest flaw for me is that it just felt too tame and reserved. Sure, all the female characters are keen to grope their breasts and shout “Women for Peace!” at the slightest provocation in the first half, and all the male characters strut around with enviable endowment under their robes in the second. But it all felt somewhat halfhearted and not nearly as provocative as it should’ve been. It’s just not bawdy, raunchy, and uproarious enough. And while it’s certainly an admirable effort, there’s a distinctive lack of Old Comedy spirit.
It’s not that Aristophanes is anachronistic all of a sudden. After all, sex and war never lose topicality. I’m more inclined to believe that Lysistrata just didn’t do enough to make itself distinct. It hovers indecisively between faithful recreation and tasteful adaptation, coming alive in places but never really coming together as a whole.
Still, Old Comedy is a supremely difficult thing to stage, and I certainly admire the effort. Technically competent, but lacking the Aristophanic essence, it succeeds as a performance but stumbles as a production. Just like the women featured, there’s a whole lot of teasing with no real payoff. And just like the men, parts of the audience are piqued, but they’re likely to leave wanting more.
Lysistrata is presented by Hart House Theatre and staged by the Canopy Theatre Company. Performances happen at 8PM from today until Saturday August 6. For more information, visit www.canopytheatre.ca.
This article was originally published on our old website at https://thenewspaper.ca/the-arts/lysistrata-the-sex-strike/.