Lysistrata, now playing at City Lights in San Jose, opens with Diahanna Davidson, who gives a penetrating performance in the play's titular role, screaming at the top of her lungs. As a harbinger of things to come, this pretty much nails it. Director and adaptor Will Huddleston's Lysistrata is a noisy and orgiastic affair, in which actors bellow, moan, shriek, and thunder their lines to the heavens, as if their collective feet were pushing against the theater's very rafters.
Always a comedy, in Huddleston's hands Aristophanes's seminal work is really more of a farce, with all the subtlety of a Pyramus and Thisbe skit performed by randy players in the heat of coitus. I don't have a problem with that, honest to Peter, and on the night I attended, most of the audience hooted and applauded Huddleston's endless double entendres (I lost count at 69) and four-letter epithets like demented cheerleaders from The Society for the Enraptured Embrace of Moral Decay. Which is to say, they were having a hell of a good time. I wanted to give up and join the bawdy and irreverent enterprise, but I kept wondering what Aristophanes would have thought of this remake of his 2,500-year-old seminal work. Being your basic old-school satirist, he was probably a bit more concerned with the message of his piece rather than its style. Stiff that he was, he actually had something to say.
Huddleston does too, as an early exchange between Lysistrata and Kleonike (Beverly Griffith) suggests. Kleo, as Lysistrata calls her, is ready to help her friend bring the men of Athens to their knees, for a change, and cease their irrational and infantile war-making. As long, that is, as Kleo thinks Lysistrata's remedy is to go shopping. "You make your country stronger when you buy things," she proclaims, in an overly obvious reference to George Bush's almost identical and equally cynical advice to the nation in the wake of 9/11. "New slippers!" she squeals. "I feel so patriotic!" Yeah, I get it, but couldn't Huddleston have found a fresher topical reference to insert into his adaptation? Was The Huffington Post down?
Of course, what Lysistrata actually has in mind is that the women of Greece should sue for peace by withholding piece of ass, which takes some convincing since the women of Athens are every bit the sexual athletes as the men. Heidi Kobara has a nice turn as Lampito, Lysistrata's Spartan counterpart, and watching her and Davidson use their tongues to persuade the skeptical women of Greece to rebuff the amorous advances of their manly men is great stuff.
And then, I'm afraid, things kinda go limp. Not for the lack of convincing performances. Ironically the best are by the male members of the cast. Ron Talbot, who has made a name for himself locally by playing serious men with serious words to say, successfully stretches his comedic wings by playing another: Socrates. Here the great philosopher is subjected to numerous physical and psychological indignities, which decorum prevents from enumerating here. Talbot's Socrates rises to the occasion. Thom Gorrebeeck excels in several roles, from a masked Viagrus, who delivers his lines like a stoned Muppet, to Kinesias, whose swollen member (he calls it Hercules) turns out to be a mere preview of the phallic wonders to come. Also terrific are the magistrate (Tom Gough), his daughter Dawn (Nina Harada), and the magistrate's mother (Molly Thornton), whose confrontation with Gough is hilarious. A commanding presence on stage, with an expressive face and winning gestures that come off like perfectly natural ad libs, Gough's autocratic magistrate reverts to mortified teenager in a heartbeat when faced with his proud and defiant mom's "metaphors."
And then, before we even realize it has happened, the play becomes a war of words, the main one being "f@$#," which Huddleston gratuitously tosses around until it goes flaccid. The first instance is the most effective. It features Socrates and Xantippe (Shannon Stowe, who also did the show's choreography and served as the play's assistant director) trading increasingly engorged "F yous" until Socrates backs down. Runner up: Dawn's defiance of her authoritarian father (put "daddy" at the end of that phrase, and it'll get a laugh every time).
Sitting in the audience, one is caught in this verbal crossfire of style versus substance. At the top of the show, the women were indignant, remember? At least Lysistrata was, but when Huddleston opens the second half of the play by having his heroine declare that the women of Athens are suffering because they need to get laid, in the same, earnest, full-throated voice that she had used to trumpet her politics, the moral authority of her character is sucked dry. She should be the ground to the circus going on around her. Instead, she becomes part of the mob, which makes Huddleston's humor seem imprudent and his cheeky, "look what I just saw on YouTube" references feel tired and dated.
Indeed, for all the pop-culture and contemporary-politics references, a very important, if potentially undermining, one appears to have escaped Huddleston's attention. Where in Lysistrata is Hillary Clinton? Isn't there a place here for her? Well, no, since she voted to authorize the current nightmare in Iraq (hardly the thing our heroine would have done). Back when it might have made a difference, it was a male named Barak Obama who rose, like the women of Athens, to the call of peace. How does Huddleston reconcile this inconvenient sexual anti-stereotype? He doesn't, contenting himself instead to toss gags at the groundlings.
Lysistrata continues at City Lights Theater Company through April 20, 2008. 529 S. Second Street, San Jose, (408) 295-4200. For tickets and information vist cltc.org.