Lysistrata: still funny after thousands of years

Two characters wear Barbara Clayden's improvised hats in Lysistrata at Bard on the Beach.

Mophead meets baghead by starlight. (Photo of Quelemia Sparrow and Luisa Jojic by Tim Matheson)

Let’s all just agree to see everything that Lois Anderson directs from now on, okay? Two years ago, her reinvention of Pericles for Bard on the Beach was a revelation. And this year she has brought us a Lysistrata that’s so fresh I feel younger after seeing it.

Lysistrata isn’t Shakespeare; it was written by Aristophanes in 411 B.C, and two thousand and twenty-nine years later, it’s still hilarious.

In the story, the Greek city states are engaged in an endless series of wars, so an Athenian named Lysistrata convinces all of the women of Greece to go on a sex strike until the men stop fighting.

Anderson and playwright Jennifer Wise have added a framing device in which an all-female company is performing Hamlet at Bard on the Beach. But when the acting company hears that Vanier Park is about to be turned into a shipping terminal, they decide to stage Lysistrata instead. “Why do a play about a man incapable of action?” they ask, when they could be doing a play about kick-ass women.

Because it’s impossible to identify what concrete result this troupe hopes to gain from staging Lysistrata, for a long time, this premise feels hollow. It eventually resolves itself, though—to moving effect—and, in the meantime, it is more fun than the proverbial monkey-stuffed barrel.

Several times on opening night, Barbara Clayden’s costumes elicited spontaneous eruptions of applause. Since the company of Hamlet has thrown Lysistrata together at the last minute, all of these costumes are supposedly improvised from found materials. So, when the female leaders of Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth arrive, Thebes and Corinth are wearing headdresses made of plastic water bottles and bubble wrap, and Sparta’s leather skirt and headdress are spectacularly adorned with stainless steel cutlery. Later, when the horny men show up, they sport giant stiffies made of pool noodles.

These visual successes would be short-lived if the actors couldn’t fill them with life. A large part of what makes Sparta’s cutlery so hilarious is the paradoxical hauteur with which Marci T. House endows her character. Adele Noronha plays the first Athenian soldier to arrive and she is so achingly convincing in her priapism that I kept thinking, “I’ve met this guy.”

The script itself is very funny. Amazingly, some of the wildest jokes come directly from the original by Aristophanes. When swearing to forego sex, for instance, one of the women asks if the oath covers the position known as the lioness and the cheese grater. But a lot of the best material is brand new. In the framing device, actor Sharon Crandall admits she’s having trouble giving up the idea of performing in Hamlet at Bard on the Beach. “No woman has ever played Horatio here before,” she whines, to which Bard veteran Jennifer Lines icily replies, “I did. did.”

The first act flies by. And Act 2 lands.

By that time, a couple of male officers from the VPD have arrived to arrest an actor who has tagged public property in protest and, increasingly, the cops’ presence sheds light on Lysistrata. One of the officers is supposedly married to actor Colleen Wheeler and, when he insists on carrying out the arrest, she commands, “Ross, sit down, or you’re on the couch tonight.”

It’s this long-awaited confluence of the framing device and the play that delivers the goods. Spoiler alert: I’m going to give away the ending here.

When the men of Greece finally agree to stop waging war, a figure who represents Earth emerges. Rather than honouring her, the soldiers set to dividing the spoils: as they rip away parts of Earth’s clothing, it looks like the prelude to gang rape.

There’s a moving coda. Throughout the evening, actor Quelemia Sparrow has been an affecting presence. Playing a version of herself, Sparrow, who is Musqueam, starts the evening by delivering a goofily inept variation on the often pious speech that begins, “We want to acknowledge that we are on the traditional and unceded territories…” Things get more serious as she insists that the cops stop referring to Vanier Park and call the area by its indigenous name, Snauq. And, in a magical moment at the very end, she plants a tuber in a tiny plot of dirt, a tuber of the blue flowers that First Nations women used to tend here.

In this moment, Lysistrata and its modern frame fully unite—by combining oppression of women with desecration of the environment. And there are all sorts of other reverberations about war, colonialism, and capitalism.

If you want to see the true value of diversity in casting, it reaches glowing fruition in this final passage: Sparrow isn’t just a skilled and gifted actor, she also brings her own vast framework.

This is a long review and there’s a lot I haven’t talked about, including Mishelle Cutler’s music: the song that Lysistrata sings about untangling the knotty wool of war to knit a warm coat for the people is sublime. And I haven’t talked about how, in a starring role at Bard—at last—Luisa Jojic commands the stage.

I’ll leave that—and more—for you to discover.

This adaptation of Lysistrata deserves many more productions.

LYSISTRATA Adapted from Aristophanes’s play by Jennifer Wise and Lois Anderson. Directed by Lois Anderson. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre on Friday, July 13. Continues in rep until September 13.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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