Greeks Bearing Gifts

Lysistrata, a 2,400-year-old comedy, still packs a wallop

Lysistrata, through June 11, produced by Bad Epitaph Theater At Cleveland Public Theatre Through June 11, produced by Bad Epitaph Theater 6415 Detroit Avenue 216-241-6000 or 800-766-6048
No score: Shannon McNamara's Myrrhine holds out on Arthur Grothe's Kinesias.
No score: Shannon McNamara's Myrrhine holds out on Arthur Grothe's Kinesias.
David Hansen didn't have to get a cameo on The Drew Carey Show to prove himself a local success story. Just try to get into a Saturday night performance of his company, Bad Epitaph's, production of Lysistrata -- it's standing room only. Crowds of all ages, from their first purple-dye job to varicose veins, are jostling to get on the waiting list.

Of course, this could be attributed to the abundant nudity, but that's just being cynical.

Hansen has a gift for effortless proletariat theater. Serving up the equivalent of a four-star hamburger and cold beer, he succeeds where so many organizations with bigger endowments and pretensions fail.

His triumphs have included Hamlet as a film-noir ballbuster. With Sin, he reinvented the medieval morality play in the form of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now he has turned his powers of whimsy to Aristophanes's enduring political farce about women who, to attain peace, refuse to give a piece.

This farcical jewel on the nature of sexual politics and war has kept its luster through two millennia. It is brought out of its box every generation to reflect on current wars and sexual mores. Hansen and cohorts have shamelessly goosed up Jack Lindsay's translation and restrung it in the cultural equivalent of Cracker Jack prizes. Nick Koesters, Robert Nix, and Christopher M. Bowen turn the men's chorus into an ode to Larry, Curly, and Moe. Cavorting like satyrs, prancing like hippos, and being pantsed by local warrior women, they set the dignity of mankind back to the Stone Age. Here, fifth-century Greece is cast as an age of leering innuendo. The evening's two hours fly by with voluptuous energy, as lusty boys and busty girls enact teases out of beach-party movies.

Alison Hernan's Lysistrata is played with the fierce, purposeful sexual dominance of an Amazon high priestess. Hernan seems born to her multitude of dominatrix ensembles (which she personally designed). Her performance evokes the predatory sexual danger and delight of Honor Blackman's Bond heroine Pussy Galore.

The production joyfully suggests the steamy, tongue-in-cheek lasciviousness of a Russ Meyer sexploitation flick. The men seek ego gratification through war and sexual dominance; the women fight for peace and domesticity. Each side gleefully strips to show off its weapons. In this ancient manifesto of sexual intrigue, nudity is used as the exclamation point. Proving that the best jokes are still the oldest, left over from the original Athenian cast production is the magnificent visual metaphor of all the men with raging erections (except the pansy magistrate, played with exquisite fastidiousness by Clyde Simon), embodied in an array of artificial phalluses in different shapes and colors, ranging from gold lamé to Scottish plaid. In a stroke of breathtaking bawdiness, they seem to grow with the alarming frequency of Pinocchio's nose. In one of theater's most enduring wish-fulfillment fantasies, goatish lust left unfulfilled erupts into harmony and reconciliation.

One of director Hansen's inspirations is turning the Spartans into burring Scotsmen. Pandora Robertson masterfully chops Aristophanes's dialogue into comic fodder. As a matched bookend, Ben Goldman portrays her beetle-browed husband with a comic flair and an obscene protuberance under his kilt.

Supplying the evening's perkiest eros are Shannon McNamara and Arthur Grothe as a debauched Ken and Barbie in a mirthful roundelay of coitus interruptus.

Paralleling the Greeks' use of music, Dennis Yurich adapts sections of dialogue into bluesy waltzes and anthems. The effect is much the same as when Kurt Weill musicalized the 18th-century Beggar's Opera into The Threepenny Opera, imbuing an antique with a sly urgency and raffishness. The music is complemented and enhanced by Sheffia Dooley's ragamuffin choreography, which suggests a B.C. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

This can count as summer's first joyous work. Like any celebration, it cries out for its own dress code: Sandals, sherbet-colored Bermuda shorts, and a loud jungle print should do justice to its raucous, carefree spirit.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It With You concerns a family of cheerful nonconformists, dedicated to "doing their own thing" a good 30 years before it became the '60s mantra. The play's prescription for happiness is a breezy attitude, implacable naïveté, and a belief that rock-solid stupidity will keep the wolf away from the door and get your daughter a firm footing in the bourgeoisie with a rich husband. The work's unflagging optimism made it a beacon of hope in the Depression and keeps it, up to this very day, as one of the world's most produced plays. You'll have to go to Tibet to find a high school that hasn't produced it. It's the theatrical equivalent of a dandelion, hardy and inescapable.

The Beck Center production gets the job done. It is likable yet uninspired, lacking the frantic pace and comic ingenuity to give it more flesh-and-blood urgency. As always, Sarah May's direction is fluid and amiable, but in this case, lacking that spark of divine inspiration that would bring yesterday's news back to life. The most pleasing aspect is that, if you are one of the millions who performed in this play in school days of yore, this production will be a pleasant piece of nostalgia, complete with pained grimaces, over-precise pronunciation, overdone expressions of anger and surprise, and robotic body language. It'll bring your adolescent thespian encounter rushing back to you -- you may even want to put braces on its teeth.

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