Aristophanes’ antiwar comedy “Lysistrata” was written in 411 B.C., but it reads more freshly than the contempo free adaptation playing at Theatricum Botanicum. Author Ellen Geer obviously is bursting to express herself on U.S. imperialism, the war in Iraq, women’s rights and male-female relationships, and virtually no thought goes unsaid. Aristophanes focused on a relatively small conflict between Athens and Sparta, but Geer’s canvas spreads out to embrace the whole world, resulting in a well-meaning but shapeless talkathon. Her ponderous preachiness is so exasperating that we automatically reject even valid ideas.
The original version told a pungently comic tale of Greek women, led by Athenian instigator Lysistrata, who decided to deny their husbands sex until the men agreed to lay down their arms and end the Second Peloponnesian War. Geer is Lysistrata in 2003, dealing with a distressingly empty-headed group of females who place personal trainers and dieting above such mundane considerations as bloodshed and body bags. One proudly proclaims, “I threw away my Dixie Chicks CD.”
Lysistrata advises her followers to back off in the bedroom, or if they must submit, “yield to his wishes but be surly.” Diane (Karen Reed) represents the other side of the debate, and is called, none too subtly in the program, the Republican Woman.
Before long, women from Afghanistan, Korea, Serbia, Rwanda and Iraq flood the stage, pointing accusatory fingers at the monstrous evils perpetrated by the U.S. government. But the show isn’t content to label American men as lustful, warmongering beasts. They also must have contempt for their spouses, with one saying, “Thank God my wife is dead.”
Geer’s story rarely rises beyond the dramatic heights of women spraying water guns at their oppressors. Her resolution — convincing every country to sign peace treaties by encouraging sex deprivation — is too monumental a stretch even on a comedic level. More problematically, the first act covers every key point, and the production would be more effective if it ended at the halfway mark.
Peter Alsop, Tom Allard, Melora Marshall and Geer have composed songs that re-state what the dialogue has already told us, traffic in cliches (“I love the smile in your eyes when I take your hand — I love the way that you stand”) or make excruciating stabs at humor. Chief musical embarrassment is “Don’t Put Your Hand in My Pants — Just Because We’re in Love” as dense, silly Darbie (Willow Geer) fends off her horny soldier husband. Some of the music is talk-sung, excusing a cast of nonsingers from the seemingly intolerable burden of carrying a tune. John Rangel’s skillful keyboard and Marshall McDaniel’s cello make the material sound better than it is.
Many of the actors seem under-rehearsed and uncertain of their lines, but a few stand out in the 50-member multicultural cast. Geer’s Lysistrata has dignity and stature and Melora Marshall is excellent as the wife who feigns pregnancy to escape. Alan Blumenfeld’s caricature of an opportunistic politician is a shrewd study of hypocrisy. Jeff Wiesen, as besotted GI Jack, struggles to lighten the proceedings, but focus always drifts back to the grimly determined Lysistrata.
Many of Geer’s concepts are realistic and deeply felt. The solutions, however, are too simplistic. In view of the superficial female examples onstage (weren’t there any other intelligent, accomplished women around?), we can’t help questioning the show’s final thesis, “If the world is to be saved, it’s the women who will do it.”