Aristophanes' Lysistrata is often cited as an anti-war comedy. The women of Greece plot to stop their husbands from fighting each other by refusing sex. The women get uppity, the men get ornery, and the stage is combative with coarse words and testicle-crushing fists. But as long as the men are distracted by their raging libidos, at least they aren't levying armies. Lysistrata is often cast in a "feminist" light, where women fight for their rights by boycotting their spouses' most carnal needs. The way to a man's heart, jests Aristophanes, is through his long-sword.
But Lysistrata is also a screwball sex farce, and on paper, it's hilarious. Aristophanes used every double-entendre available to a Bronze Age comedian, and if there are any B.C. phallic symbols and vaginal substitutes he missed, they're Greek to me. (He would've had a field day with Trojan condoms). And so, after bushwhacking through the Socratic monologues of Medea and Antigone, most English majors find Lysistrata to be one big, lusty relief.
Kaitlyn Wittig directs this latest production, at the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre, and as usual, an ancient text that works on paper doesn't translate easily to stage. Literally, the translation is awkward, like a Dr. Seuss poem written by saucy pirates, and the only thing wonkier than a man saying, "I'm feeling wonky," is a chorus member calling a woman a "slot." Because so much of the humor is lost to all but ancient Greek scholars, Wittig relies on visual cues: The men wear synthetic scrota and phalli, which dangle and bob throughout their jumpy scenes. The male chorus hunches and garbles like Neanderthals, and no doubt, if the script allowed it, they'd be clubbing their mates and dragging them home by the hair.
Wittig notes in the program that the puppet phalluses have classical roots (who knew strap-ons were so distinguished?) and instead of masks, she uses exotic makeup. The student cast is energetic to the point of nuclear fission, but maturely controlled, so that nothing is lost. These actors-in-training show great potential, twisting and jerking their bodies with all the subtlety of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and I look forward to seeing each performer in something less exhaustingly expressive.
Feminist or anti-war, farce or fable, Lysistrata is a rare celebration of female heroism, executed in a uniquely feminine fashion. As the titular Lysistrata, leader of the rebellion, Tara Velan is a knockout, and it's no wonder, with a presence this commanding, that peace so soon breaks out.
Lysistrata continues thru Nov. 9. Studio Theater, Cathedral of Learning, Oakland. $10-19. Tickets: 412-624-PLAY or www.pitt.edu/~play