Saturday 14 July 2018

Lysistrata resurrects 2,400 year old au courant grievances v. men
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : The conceit of Lysistrata by the ancient Greek Aristophanes is simple. No more sex, men, until your arms of war go limp. Then we can all lie back and have a bit of peace just for the fun of it. Aristophanes was enjoying some pre-feminist political snickers here. Based on the Peloponnesian war that had been dragging on interminably. If the war tumesced much longer, he mused, soon the women of Athens and Sparta would have no men to roll in the hay with for years to come. So the feisty femme Lysistrata proposes why not stage a pre-emptive sex strike now when the soldiers come home on furlough all hot and horny?

Jennifer Lines, Quelemia Sparrow and Marci T. House have a giggle over plans to boycott the bedroom. "The war is over, if you want it!" they tell their men. 
Photo credit : David Cooper

How it's all put together : About her award-winning direction of Pericles for Bard in 2016, I said this : "Director Lois Anderson conspires with a variety of muses and consultants in concert with the show's creative design team to conceive and fabricate a fantasitcal version of the script." She and co-adaptor Jennifer Wise turned their efforts to that same task in 2018 with Aristophanes whose works preceded Shakespeare by two thousand years.

At present there's not an Iraq war triggered by phony WMD's to use as the launching pad for Lysistrata and its timeless jibes at men, their peccadilloes and erect pomposities -- we who occasion so much terror worldwide. But identity and gender politics never cease to pop up dramatic possibilities.

So Ms's Anderson & Wise gave their Lysistrata a unique hook : the play's staging has to appear as if it is a spontaneous and improvisational mounting of the Greek script by Bard's women actors. They say they're "on strike against Hamlet, apparently he's a snivelling bore". Hamlet is the piece they've been rehearsing for weeks and is about to open. But they learn that the patriarchal and privileged types who run politics want to convert Vanier Park into a major container port. They decide that Lysistrata will be a terrific protest statement showing strong-minded women at work rather than present a dithery Dane who can't decide whether he wants to be or not to be.

Quelemia Sparrow, Ming Hudson and Jennifer Lines do a spontaneous rehearsal of their protest performance of Lysistrata.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson 
To pull off being an impromptu and unrehearsed show, the program notes tell us, costume designer Barbara Clayden and set designer Drew Facey "...have chosen to work only with things you'd legitimately find at the Bard site : cardboard boxes, water bottles, a Sharpie, a curtain, old cans of paint, steel wool, the actor's street clothes, and a few unexpected discoveries..." like 38 discarded toilet paper tubes painted gold for the magistrate's headgear; errant broom heads for the soldiers' helmet brushes; mops for wigs;  countless beer can tops stitched in a row for jewel'd belts.

The play's the thing : The show is really three plays within one. The Hamlet troupe that morphs into the Lysistrata cast, then there's the Bard ensemble qua Christopher Gaze employees for the summer who come to grief with the VPD over some graffiti tagging and other Vanier Park vandalism when off-duty from their Lysistrata show rehearsals.

Along the way there are hilarious dialogue moments, no question. In denying their Greek husbands sex they promise not to perform "a head-butt followed by a reverse Spartan leg-wrap" or the favourite "lion and cheese-grater" manoeuvre.  

Lysistrata (Luisa Jojic) cajoles the women. We must stick together like birds of a feather, she demands. "If the swallows start squabbling and start wandering away from their nest they will be called the biggest sluts that ever lived". Still miffed that her feminist Hamlet has been knackered, Colleen Wheeler snarks : "This is the stupidest play I've ever seen. Do you realize you've just called swallows 'sluts'?" Laughs over that for 1/2 minute or more.

Quelemia Sparrow and Louisa Jojic conspire how to thwart the old men guarding the money at the Acropolis that funds the Sparta / Athens war. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson 
A pastiche of performances : When the play sticks to its slapstick moments a la Monty Python or its Christmas panto mode bringing audience members on to the stage to join the fun, this creative piece is pure hoot to watch. Even the interjections by Musqueam native Quelemia Sparrow about the park's indigenous history back 10,000 years and more is made into a running joke. Every time the cops refer to "Vanier Park" she interjects that its Coast Salish traditional name is "Snauq!" instead. The riffs and sight-gags back-&-forth on this bit grabbed countless laughs.

In the second act some live music is introduced. A ballad about how Greek women would knit coats for others to wear instead of beating ploughshares into swords was rich & subtle. Redolent of Chris Martin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ann Mortifee all in a piece. Nice work indeed by composer Mishelle Cuttler and performers.

But then the play started to change focus from its largely comic lens. More straight Aristophanes dialogue than satire and snigger. From panto and Pythonesque silliness the audience was asked to jump-shift to a lengthy, utterly serious side trip extolling native reverence for the land and the sea that consumed the final 15-20 minutes of the show. Dramatically this failed for me. But I may have been alone : a nearly 100% unanimous standing ovation greeted the cast when the lights were doused.

Acting pin-spots : Much silliness and risible performances from the cast. Colleen Wheeler protesting the cancellation of her Hamlet role : she repeatedly reports for duty in her all-black shroud to emote and shout and finally spit out her "to be" lines in the faces of front row patrons. Marci T. House as one of the hunchy old men and as chief magistrate. Ming Hudson fretting "I'll never work at Bard again!" thanks to the Hamlet troupe's bit of spontaneous anarchy at play here telling Mr. Gaze to pound sand. The 3-men, 3-women nude wrestling match : no question the show's slapstick highlight what with all those nylon mammaries and gonads being slung about at random and then the geezers dropping fitfully but embracingly in a dog pile. The deadpan ambiguously gay cop Sebastien Archibald who ultimately warms to this bunch and weeps. Just plain fun one and all.

Who gonna like : This ambitious and inventive script is a wholesale reimagining of the Aristophanes original. Personally I had doubts the hook of a container dock protest would work as a no-sex-for-you gambit. And the costuming / staging bit of "the lethal one-eyed pool snake" for the Greek soldiers suffering from long-term sex denial carried on quite quite quite too long. 

But fans of this troupe -- most of whom are also doing Timon of Athens -- will cheer the energy and imagination and dedication they all put into creating this homegrown mini-spectacle. The standing-o the crew got at show's end took a bit to rise up but ultimately did with appreciative vigour in their claps and cheers.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 18 shows between now and the September 13th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ Run-time 120 minutes with intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Lois Anderson. Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Musical Director / Sound Designer/Composer Mishelle Cuttler. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Indigenous Consultant Quelemia Sparrow. Stage Manager Joanne P. B. Smith. Assistant Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart. Apprentice Stage Manager Zoe Bellis.  Directing Apprentice Joel Wirkkunen.  Costume Design Apprentice Hannah Case.  

Performance Ensemble :  Sebastien Archibald. Sharon Crandall. Michelle Fisk. Marci T. House. Ming Hudson. Luisa Jojic. Jennifer Lines. Joel D. Montgrand. Adele Noronha. Quelemia Sparrow. Colleen Wheeler. 


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