Also see Suzanne's recent review of Ten Unknowns
Lysistrata, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. now through June 9th, is the final production under Robert Brustein's 22-year tenure as Artistic Director. When the project was announced a year ago it promised to be a fitting send off for one of the movers and shakers of modern World Theatre. Cherry Jones, an A.R.T. founding member, was to be the centerpiece of a creative team of artists who all had A.R.T. connections and long-standing artistic relationships with Brustein.
This political satire, a hit since the Dionysian Festival of 411 BC, was an inspired and, it turns out, timely choice. Aristophanes fantasized that his heroine, by organizing the (reluctant) women of Greece to declare a sex strike and take over the state treasury, could put an end to the terrible toll the civil war between Athens and Sparta, then in its third decade, was taking on their men.
The play combines comic skits, lyrical passages and topical, political ranting with a lot of general ribaldry and revelry, not unlike the best of Saturday Night Live. While he may have been the first to promote "make love, not war," Aristophanes shouldn't be mistaken for a feminist. Originally performed by men, for men, he aims as many barbs at the frailty of women as he does at the foolishness of war.
The 2001-2002 season announcement named Andrei Serban as director, an "auteur" with a reputation for putting his own twist on familiar classics. Larry Gelbart was also on board, presumably to do for Aristophanes what he'd already done for Plautus with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein, composer and librettist of the opera A View from the Bridge, were set to contribute songs. By late summer Bolcom had withdrawn due to other commitments and was replaced by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors.) David Zippel (City of Angels) eventually became Menken's lyricist.
Serban, Jones and set designer Michael H. Yeargan (a long-time Serban collaborator both at the A.R.T. and elsewhere) were the ones to blow the whistle on the Gelbart version, now subtitled Sex and the City-State. They claimed, among other things, that it strayed too far from the original. With only weeks to go before the start of rehearsals, Brustein decided to write his own adaptation and recruited Galt MacDermot and Matty Selman as the third song writing team.
Brustein included interpolations from a 1930 George Seldes version and shares credit with the entire A.R.T. Company for the final product. It would be great fun to report that while the company performed the madness of Marat/Sade by night, the madness of conceiving an entire musical in roughly the same time period by day produced a miracle. No surprise to discover that can only happen in old MGM movie.
In talking to the press recently, Brustein has been quick to say, "this is not a musical." Nonetheless, spoken Greek choruses are incongruous with four musicians (keyboards, drums, bass and guitar) so handy. The concept of "cabaret style" has been bandied about as well, but a platform and a microphone on a stand do not a cabaret make. There's little that passes for a real song; although, at least in the beginning, the lights dim and follow spots gamely try to pick up the actors whenever a song appears to be coming on. Not until the curtain call do we get anything close to a rousing Dionysian good time.
Occasionally, there's a glint of inspiration: the little doors in the back wall of the set, the sign announcing "time" / "passes" and the full nude body stocking with all the details painted on. The old men's chorus (the Blues Brothers on a pension) is promising, but they lose "the cute old people dancing contest" to the ladies with their walkers from The Producers. The "Land for Peace" game, although headed in the right direction, could use clarity and a better finish.
Cherry Jones is earnest, but not compelling, playing straight person to an uneven collection of comic turns. No one has created a character that's a modern equivalent worthy of being deflated the way Aristophanes' political victims were.
While not requiring shock value, a Lysistrata in 2002 still begs for lewdness, topicality and political incorrectness that will surprise. Balloons for phalluses are not an inspiration. I was hoping to be caught as off guard as I was by South Park, the Movie, which, also, by the way, managed to use musical numbers effectively.
Perhaps, in the spirit of collaborative development that now includes the audience, the A.R.T. company will continue to hone this piece before moving on to Philadelphia for a run at the Prince Music Theatre the last two weeks in June.
Lysistrata now through June 9th at the American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, 54 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. Tickets available at the Loeb Drama Center box office, by phone at (617) 547-8300 or online at www.amrep.org. A co-production with the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia, Lysistrata runs there from June 15th to June 30th. For more information: /www.princemusictheater.org/