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Make War, Not Love

A Greek chorus line: Lysistrata (Kelly Bertenshaw, center) and her brawny ladies offer a militant version of girl power

In the opening moments of the Guthrie Lab's Lysistrata, the title character, played by Kelly Bertenshaw, stands before a temple ornamented with rigid male members and scrawled with colorful, chalky murals of Rubenesque females in various states of Dionysian rapture. Like a trumpeter intent on bringing down the bulwark of the patriarchy with one profane blast, she bellows, "Where the fuck are these women?"

The walls don't come tumbling, but the flower of Grecian womanhood does rumble in, spitting, strutting, striking poses, and looking for all the world like a militant splinter faction of the Spice Girls. Lysistrata explains to the gathered Amazons that she is organizing a sex strike to stop the disastrous war that occupies the men of Greece--no peace, no piece, or, in the parlance of Ranjit Bolt's adaptation, "whores to end all wars." After some initial grumbling and a wrestling match over a suddenly precious dildo, the women agree to the coital moratorium and follow Lysistrata to capture the Parthenon, issuing a war cry that sounds suspiciously like that of Xena the Warrior Princess.

It's not what we might expect from a 2,500-year-old play, but the first scene perfectly captures the brassy spirit of the Lab's production. Director Wendy Knox, best known for her work with Frank Theatre, offers us Aristophanes' satire of sexual politics as a gleefully vulgar romp, saturated with double entendres, fizzled seductions, and more flapping phalli than a debauch at the Playboy mansion during a Viagra shortage.

It might be a bit anachronistic to call Lysistrata a proto-feminist play. In Athens circa 500 B.C., women were not only less than men, but less than citizens. The idea that the ladies of Greece could stall the nation's military machinery must have been cheeky in a way that is nearly incomprehensible to modern audiences--like suggesting that toddlers might do a better job of steering the ship of state than the current leadership. Knox and company don't try to turn the play into a feminist polemic. Instead, they offer a broad and inclusive skewering of gender roles. The women are lascivious, manipulative, and often stupid. The men are cuckolded fops, constantly tripping over their manhood--represented here as it was in the theaters of ancient Greece by ridiculously long Corinthian columns that dangle between their legs.

When the boys arrive and find the women holding their war chest hostage, the battle is joined in full. There is a vicious bombardment of vegetables from the defiant ladies and a chaotic battle royal between guys and dolls that looks like the mating dance of sociopathic chickens. The buffoonish male warriors are rebuffed, and their epicene leader (Steve Hendrickson) is captured and dressed up like a woman. Just as the stage seems to be turning into the center ring of a circus, the ruckus stops, and man and woman alike join in for a burlesque song-and-dance number.

Although the chorus songs are an integral part of Aristophanes' play, they feel intrusive and unnecessary in the Guthrie Lab's production. The lyrics are given a putatively modern twist, but what do we learn from lines like "I've got to find a pimp, before this thing goes limp"--other than that someone is in desperate need of a rhyming dictionary? Showstoppers are called such because they stop the show. Once we've seen one or two of them, they begin to feel as obligatory and pointless as the musical numbers in a Disney film. By the third, we wish Lysistrata and company would just cut the lounge act and get on with business.

Like music, sex is best used as punctuation rather than punch line. Extensive market research shows that modern theatergoers can endure an average of six penis-related sight gags per hour; the Lab's Lysistrata approaches this dangerous threshold within its first 15 minutes. In the second hour, as Myrrhina (Virginia S. Burke) teases her horny husband Kinesias (Michael Booth), and he, ahem, rises to the occasion, our laughter has long since turned to groaning. We are as thankful as poor Kinesias when the men finally make peace: Now everyone can get laid and we can go home.

 

Occasionally we're reminded that sex is both a drug and a weapon: intoxicating and dangerous. If Lysistrata and her Amazons use lust as ammunition in the battle of the sexes, the characters in Craig Lucas's The Dying Gaul use sex to attack one another from the depths of their personal hells--put bluntly, to mind-fuck one another. In the hands of director Jay Dysart and his prodigiously talented Hidden Theatre cast, their intrigues take on the dimension of Greek tragedy, full of lust and loathing.

The foreplay begins in a faux-futuristic office awash in unnatural purple and blue light. Screenwriter Robert (David Schulner) has come to sell a script called "The Dying Gaul" to studio executive Jeffrey (Brian Baumgartner). The screenplay, we learn, is about Robert's dead lover. Jeffrey, slick with sweat and oozing slippery charisma, seduces Robert with an offer of one million dollars, contingent on a few changes in the script. "Most Americans hate gay people," he explains. "To get people into the theater, they have to think they're going to have fun. No one goes to the theater to have a bad time...you can do anything you want, as long as you don't call it what it is."

Simple enough, but things are not simple for long. As Robert debates whether to sell his soul to Hollywood, Jeffrey prematurely consummates the deal by ramming his tongue down the young writer's throat. The purple light melts into a sickly yellow radiance. Robert begins an affair with the older man and soon finds himself in a dangerous psychosexual ménage à trois with Jeffrey and his wife, Elaine (Annelise Christ). Jeffrey insists that he's not gay; his liaisons stem from a need to be dominated. Elaine wants to hurt Jeffrey both for his infidelity and for indulging in a sexual game that she cannot play. Poor, naive Robert is caught between them.

The light changes again, this time to a metallic silver tinged with a phosphorescent violet that glows through muslin curtains. The scene shifts to cyberspace, the sexual playground where all games are without consequences. In his machine, Robert finds a link to an ethereal realm where disembodied souls toy with one another and where some find life beyond death. Meanwhile, Elaine uses information stolen from Robert's psychiatrist (John Schuman) to contact him via AOL in the guise of his dead lover. The full measure of her hate creeps into her pretty, impassive face as she toys with the grief-stricken man for no reason but to inflict pain.

The lights pulse and shift, raspy voices whisper dirty secrets, and the atmosphere becomes charged with anomie. As the purple glow fades to dull white, Robert stands alone at center stage, with Jeffrey crumpled in a sad little heap behind him. Robert looks over the audience with eyes dark and cold as outer space and says, "This time, I'm God." God, it would seem, is a monster.

 

Lysistrata runs through April 4 at the Guthrie Lab; (612) 377-2224. The Dying Gaul runs through April 18 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage; (612) 339-4949.


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