I'd describe Aristophanes' Lysistrata as a crowd pleaser—not a term one would usually use for ancient Greek theater.
When we think of Greek drama, we first think of tragedies like Sophocles' Oedipus Rex or Euripides' Medea. These plays are chockablock with misunderstandings, revenge, mutilations and death. Hardly the stuff of easy laughs.
Perhaps we so indelibly associate the Greeks with tragedy because the plays of three tragedians—Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus—have survived, while the work of only one of their comic playwrights, Aristophanes, has come down to us.
And we should be grateful that Lysistrata has survived the journey from the Greece of the fifth century B.C. It's a charming, accessible show that's still surprisingly relevant.
Its central comic premise has a group of women banding together to withhold sex from their men. This sex strike has staggeringly far-reaching effects, changing the course of war and politics.
A theater company just needs to commit wholeheartedly to this bawdy show, and the audience is in for a delightful evening. The folks at Beowulf do not disappoint: Their production, ably directed by Nicole Scott, is a riot.
It's astonishing, actually, how funny Lysistrata still is. Comedy notoriously dates quickly, and this play is thousands of years old.
Lysistrata holds up because it taps into something universally relatable: sex, and the absurd lengths we'll go to for it. This subject is guaranteed to elicit at least a few giggles from any audience. Tweak Lysistrata just a little and it could be the basis of the latest R-rated comedy blockbuster.
In Beowulf's production, Lucille Petty takes the title role. Lysistrata is an Athenian woman who comes up with an idea to end the interminable war between Athens and Sparta by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sex until the men reach a peace.
Played by Petty, Lysistrata is a sensible, sexy leader; she's an intimidating presence even when she's vamping it up in a saucy black corset. In fact, costume designers David Swisher and Amber Roberts outfit all the women in truly sexy lingerie at various points in the evening. The costuming is all in good taste, but it's definitely racy (not that I'm complaining).
The women seize control, literally and metaphorically. They hole up in the Acropolis, which houses Athens' treasury. Thus, until a peace is brokered, the men will have access neither to their monetary treasure nor the women's erotic "treasures."
Lysistrata is assisted in her organizational efforts by several other women. There's Kalonike, played delightfully by Bree Boyd-Martin as an effervescent lush. There's the warrior leader of the Spartan women, Lampito, embodied by the statuesque Meagan Jones. The women of Thebes are represented by Ismenia, played with pixie-like charm by Robin Carson.
What's lovely about the script is that the women suffer from the sex drought just as much as the men do. Lysistrata has her work cut out for her convincing her female comrades to stick to their resolution. It's nice to see female desire represented as frankly as the male variety.
Director Scott also makes some clever casting decisions that tweak the play's gender norms. The role of one of the women, Myrrine, is played by a man in drag, actor Andrew Baughman. Myrrine's husband, Kinesias, is in turn played by a female, Lily Delamere.
This gender-bending not only provides comic variety, it also adds a queer element to the show. After all, not all sex is male-female, and the casting decision nods to that fact in a subtle way.
And while sexual politics were different back in ancient Greece, plenty of queer stuff happened then, too. Aristophanes' script even makes jokes about the isle of Lesbos (the origin of the word "lesbian"), and refers in passing to a male prostitute whose business booms when the women go on strike.
Beowulf artistic director Michael Fenlason has adapted the script to incorporate contemporary references and local Tucson jokes. This works well; after all, the original audience for the play would likewise have experienced it as being full of topical political humor.
The war that fictional Lysistrata hopes to end was a real problem. The lengthy conflict between Athens and Sparta, known the Peloponnesian War, was a destructive and bloody affair that lasted from 431 to 404 B.C.
Lysistrata was probably first performed in 411 B.C., before the war had ended. So the fantasy of the stubborn men of Athens and Sparta being forced to come to peace had a political resonance that went beyond the saucy comedy.
In fact, women standing up, demanding respect and brokering peace plays pretty well in today's political climate. As the production itself wryly points out at the end, thousands of years later, war is still very much with us. The Beowulf show might be set in a vaguely Grecian-esque land—when the characters are not in lingerie, they wear draped robes, and the minimalist set evokes ancient Greek architecture—but the spirit and humor of the show is distinctly contemporary.
And that works, because despite its age, Lysistrata's humor is still relevant and appealing. Let's be thankful for the quirks of fate that kept this light little gem from being lost to history.