The heroine of Aristophanes' fifth century comedy Lysistrata convinces women from warring Sparta and Troy to withhold sex from their husbands until they end the Peloponnesian War. The Lysistrata Project, a work-in-development staged by San Francisco's Crowded Theater Company, is a riff on the theme based in fifties suburban America. In this version, a pirate radio personality encourages suburban housewives to exploit their domesticity rather than their sexuality -- telling her listeners at the end of one transmission they can find her next time by tuning their dial to the same number as the best recipe for the apple pie in Betty Crocker -- to incite a feminist awakening.
Crowded Fire Theater, now in its 13th season, has earned a reputation as an institution for experimental theater, staging performances like this one, which was created by their thirteen resident artists in a development program called the Matchbox Theater. Elana McKernan, the author of The Lysistrata Project, started as an intern with the company before becoming a resident, and worked with Crowded Fire's Artistic Director, Marissa Wolf, while developing the play.
When you enter the Berkeley residence that has been taken over for the staging of this site-specific production, you might have to pause to re-gain your bearings. It is 1958 and 2010; on the stairs to your left and in the parlor to your right are women in aprons and men in sport coats, intermixed among others dressed not so differently from yourself. Head through to the kitchen, and you will find a housewife serving up slices of pie, and -- if you get lost for a moment savoring the flaky crust (go ahead, it's okay) -- you might forget that you are in the middle of a performance piece. That is, until the woman's husband walks past you, loosening his collar, and greets her with a "Honey, I'm home!? before retreating to the parlor (for a gin, presumably). In that moment, squished between the refrigerator and the pantry, you get the first taste of a feeling that will become familiar before the night is over, as though you are a trespasser in someone's home, witness to their most personal moments.
The Lysistrata Project is choose-your-own-adventure theatre: when you purchase your ticket, you select one of three characters to follow. Literally -- through the house, from the kitchen to the bedroom, the parlor, back to the kitchen... The audience is split into three groups, each observing the personal story of one of three housewives: Linda, Cindy, and Karen. Linda is mourning the loss of her husband (finding comfort in the arms of a number of different men); Cindy is the consummate homemaker, but laboring in a loveless marriage; Karen is struggling to find her place in a restrictive suburban life she feels at odds with.
The play wrestles with some heavy issues -- sexism, xenophobia, censorship -- in a way that might have felt heavy-handed in a more traditional theater setting, but this intimate space, sitting in someone's kitchen, watching as these issues play out in daily life reaffirms their continued relevance. Or, maybe the pie is so good it doesn't even matter.
The Lysistrata Project runs through April 23, with performances at 8pm, Thursday through Saturday at The Regent House in Berkeley. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm. For tickets and information visit crowdedFire.org.