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No Sex For Oil!

As War Looms Closer, Baltimore Troupes are Turning to an Ancient Comedy for Their Act of Protest

Paige Shuttleworth

By John Barry | Posted 2/26/2003

A rosy-cheeked George W. Bush struts his stuff across the decks of airline carriers. Donald Rumsfeld calls the rest of the civilized world a bunch of wimps. John McCain tells us that some Frenchies remind him of old movie stars past their prime. Paul Wolfowitz speaks loud and carries a big stick. Sure, you can say that the war's about big oil, or the next election. But Aristophanes and the Lysistrata Project share a much more down-to-earth assessment: This is an administration with a hard-on. And if you're going to disarm it, that's where you've got to start.

In his moderately bawdy comedy Lysistrata, the Greek playwright Aristophanes uses that take on the military-industrial complex of 400 b.c. In it, Athenian women, sick of having their men going off and getting themselves killed in battle against neighboring Sparta, decide to bring the Peloponnesian Wars to a halt with a sex strike. When the men come marching home, expecting their wives to be waiting with open legs, they instead find that their women have locked themselves up in the Acropolis, refusing to "raise their slippers to the sky" until the two warring nations learn to get along. Desperate, Spartans and Athenians decide that, given the alternatives, they'd rather get laid than fight. The war comes to a halt; everyone lives happily ever after.

The Lysistrata Project and Baltimore's theater community have brought that dream to a theater near you. On March 3, at last count, there will be 628 readings of Lysistrata in all 50 U.S. states and in dozens of countries. Ten of them will take place in Baltimore's coffee shops, meeting houses, theaters, and campuses. In New York, where the project was initiated several months ago by actress Kathryn Blume, participants will include F. Murray Abraham, Kevin Bacon, Lori Singer, and David Strathairn. Baltimore's relatively large number of readings will include figures like jazz singer Ruby Glover, National Public Radio commentator Lisa Simeone, and pros, semi-pros, and committed amateurs from the local theater scene.

In a world where anti-war activists have been pulling out their big guns, this may seem like a drop in the bucket. And the coordinators of Baltimore's chapter of the Lysistrata Project do seem resigned to the fact that reading Lysistrata isn't going to stop the administration from lobbing missiles at Baghdad. But when Eileen O'Brien, a freelance copy editor, heard about the Lysistrata Project on NPR in early January, she thought it was a great idea nevertheless.

"It appealed to me as a pro-peace action that I could get my hands around," she says. "Wearing buttons was not enough. Going to Iraq and acting as a human shield was not an option. So after I heard it on NPR, I had a meeting, set up this e-mail address, and we were off to the races."

Barbara Pfeiffer, board member of the Fells Point Corner Theatre and coordinator of a reading at Funk's Democratic Coffee Spot, got on the bandwagon largely because she liked the play. "Lysistrata is a play about women who love their husbands so much that they were willing to withhold sex to keep them from hurting themselves," she says. "I'm 68. I've lived a lot of life. I know that if I'd been younger, I might have been more militant, but [reading this play] is a peaceful means of opposing the war."

Anne Fulwiler, who will be coordinating a reading at the Theatre Project, found that this merged with the company's political agenda. She cites a tradition of political theater in Baltimore, including work by Theater Project, Bread and Puppet Theatre and the now defunct Axis Theatre. "In the human dynamics of Lysistrata," she says, "the project reinforces the role that theater has played throughout the ages in prompting change."

Organizers acknowledge that the feminist "no sex for oil" approach may be the butt of a few jokes. There's certainly room for that: Aristophanes' strategy has been co-opted before at the hands of some more radical fringe groups. One Northern California activist organization called the Lysistrata Project (not related to Baltimore's troupes), for instance, takes Aristophanes' solution to a feminist extreme: "The Lysistrata strategy then requires women to take control of the means of reproduction in order to reduce population to ecologically sustainable levels," their manifesto reads. "[W]e know that hunter-gatherers practiced population limitation as an important part of their overall survival strategy."

The organizers of Baltimore's Lysistrata Project, though, are intent on distancing themselves from the edgier interpretations. While translations vary, the Project's focus here is on theater as a participatory endeavor, where seasoned pros and rank amateurs can get on stage together to read from Aristophanes' anti-war comedy. Participants include businessmen, students, housewives, and local figures on the entertainment scene.

Show volunteer Eileen Gillan, who works by day as a public-relations consultant, finds that this kind of participatory theater can attract less demonstrative anti-war Baltimoreans. "Long after September 11," she says, "everyone was afraid--there was a strong message that you were with us or against us." But over the last few months, Gillan says she noticed that, despite what the newspapers say, she has met only a handful of people who support the war. The Lysistrata Project, she notes, gives more sedate anti-war activists a friendly forum for networking and organizing. Among those interviewed, none were heavily engaged in the agenda-oriented activism of, say, the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition, better known as ANSWER.

There is also an acknowledgement that they are preaching--and playing--to the converted. Anne Fulwiler acknowledges similarities between the Lysistrata approach and that of The Vagina Monologues. "Both plays encourage us to take action, to do what is right, to understand the strength of our individual actions," she says.

What those individual actions will be, however, remains a little nebulous. "We'll all be having discussions after the play about how to promote peace within our own frontiers," Pfeiffer says. "We can only work toward peace if we are at peace with ourselves and with our neighborhoods."

After all is said and done, the rapid spread of the Lysistrata Project may owe more to the Internet than Aristophanes. Eileen O'Brien, who initiated the local chapter, admits that focus has been sacrificed for improved chances for networking among participants, audiences, and other like-minded protesters. She also acknowledges that efforts could have been more coordinated, but then, she says, that's not what the Lysistrata Project is about. As people are attracted to readings in their own neighborhoods, they are likely to make more associations.

After all the painful attempts to make art relevant after Sept. 11, 2001, organizers feel that the Lysistrata Project may finally mark the theater community's entry into the mainstream anti-war movement. Pfeiffer, when pressed for an agenda, says simply, "That's for the individual to decide." As its planners describe it, the membership of the Lysistrata Project is diffuse, a little vague, politically uncommitted, peace-loving, and careful not to take itself too seriously. That could be the pulse that Dubya has forgotten to take, and it could be Baltimore at its best.

Readings of Lysistrata are scheduled for Monday, March 3, at times ranging from 1 to 8:30 p.m. throughout the Baltimore area. For details, see the Community Action section in this week's Baltimore Weekly calendar.

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