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Pussy Whipped

Women take over in Aristophanes' bawdy play

Michele Massa opens her mouth and closes her legs.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 3/3/2010


By Aristophanes; Adapted by Ian Gallanar

Through March 6 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

Shakespeare never dropped the f-bomb, and any cunnilingus references he may have made were smuggled in discretely among the iambs, which perhaps helps explain the stony faces on some of the more patrician-looking ticketholders at a recent performance of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's Lysistrata. But Western culture doesn't get much higher--or lower--than Aristophanes' classic Greek comedy of sex and politics. If CSC's current production isn't a complete success, it does provide some laughs and a welcome reminder of why the play's still worth mounting, seeing, and thinking about several millennia later.

CSC's Lysistrata is, in fact, two Aristophanes plays in one, company artistic director Ian Gallanar having adapted and combined the title work with the less-renowned The Assemblywomen. After a comic prologue featuring history and shtick from enormous god and demigod puppets suspended from the balconies of Columbia's rustic Oliver's Carriage House, the women of Athens filter in one by one, wearing their husbands' clothes (in this case, overcoats and combat boots). Their leader, Lysistrata (Michele Massa), has hatched a plan: If the women dress as men and act like men (this involves fake beards and a lot of spitting and harrumphing and talking about their penises), they can infiltrate the patriarchal city assembly and sneak through a measure giving control of Athens to the women, who are better qualified to run things anyway.

The plan works, and Lysistrata enacts reforms that would terrify today's Right, with money, land, and food held in common and benefiting all equally. The distribution of sex is likewise liberalized, with men able to sleep with any pretty young thing they want--as long as they sleep with an older, plainer woman first. The men, led by Lysistrata's oafish husband Blepyrus (Scott Alan Small), are warming to this new regime when their ongoing war with Sparta calls them away. Act II picks up with Lysistrata's original plot, with another Lysistrata plan: convince the men to end their wars by withholding sex until they do. The women of Greece occupy the Acropolis and bar the men from entering there, or anywhere else. Extreme horniness and unhappiness ensues among both genders.

Audience members take their seats for the show to the sounds of Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance" booming over the speakers, establishing both its pop-culture friendliness and the crotch-level baseline at which the evening operates. Small spends much of the first act squeezing out sound-effect flatulence, and a shadow-play orgy brings on intermission. Massa spends the first part of Act II brandishing a sizable sausage, and the male characters parade about with priapic balloon-animal phalli. Gallanar, who also directed, strips away many of the classical Greek trappings and forms in favor of air kisses, a classical rap, a Magic 8 Ball, and a rendition of "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves."

But, as the old saying goes, tragedy is easy, comedy is hard. There are laughs to be had here, especially courtesy the Greek women--Lorraine Imwold's Judy Holliday-esque delivery, Rebecca Ellis' timing of an especially effective anal-sex joke, Bridget Garwood's second-act impression of Scarlett Johansson with a lobotomy. Gregory Burgess, playing another of Athens' put-upon, id-ridden males, also has some fun with a recounted argument consisting of nothing but "fuck you"s. Yet overall, the show lacks the snap and polish that might help its jokes zing and its satire truly bite. Staged with minimal lighting on a long stretch of carpeted floor between two banks of seating and on the balconies on each end of the space, the show feels fragmented and loose, high energy but unfocused.

Lysistrata is a fascinating relic, nonetheless. It only took Western civilization the better part of 2,400 years to catch up to Aristophanes' understanding that women's sexual desires can be every bit as powerful (and absurd) as men's. As for an equitable society where all are provided for and an end to war, sexually enforced or otherwise, we're still waiting. And if nothing else, Lysistrata reaffirms the fact that people have always laughed at fart and dick jokes.

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