‘Lizastrata’: Make eros, not thanatos, says Aristophanes
Craig Schwartz

The Troubadour Theater Company’s uproarious mounting of Lizastrata at the Getty Villa’s amphitheater is the latest of countless versions of Aristophanes’ Greek classic Lysistrata, first performed in Athens in 411 BCE. Centered on a sex strike instigated by Athenian women to force their menfolk to stop warring with the Spartans, this ancient risqué gender-themed play has continued to capture the imagination of storytellers and audiences for 2400 years.

Recent renditions include the 2015 movie Chi-Raq, wherein Spike Lee transposed the action from the Peloponnesian War fought by Greek city-states to gang warfare in contemporary Chicago. As America’s endless imperial armed conflicts ground on, in 2018’s Lysistrata Unbound playwright Eduardo Machado reworked Aristophanes’ text into an extremely dramatic antiwar indictment with contemporary references to peace mom Cindy Sheehan and was performed at L.A.’s (appropriately named) Odyssey Theatre.

These biting, bracing works made me uncertain as to whether the Athenian stage source about war, peace, and sexual politics was written as a tragedy or comedy, so in true Grecian style I consulted the oracles—and by that I mean Wikipedia, but of course. It turns out the Troubadour troupe’s comic iteration is far closer to Aristophanes’s original intent, truer to the spirit if not necessarily the letter of this primal comedy when it was first performed during an Athenian theater festival. Thus, the Troubies’ saucy show is less like Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and more “Oedi-Puss Sex,” if you get my drift. And I suspect that the Troubies’ mise-en-scène mixing madcap mayhem featuring slapstick, satire, farce, ad-libs, improv, and outrageous sex novelties caused Aristophanes to erupt with laughter as he looked down from Mt. Olympus.

The conceit and genius of those troublesome Troubies are to combine classics with fresh pop culture music and references. For instance, their 2009 Oedipus the King, Mama! combined Sophocles’s tragedy with songs by the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Elvis. In 2014 ABBAmemnon mixed Aeschylus’s scorching tragedy Agamemnon with music by the popular ’70s Swedish pop group.

Now, in another bit of inspired wordplay, Lizastrata cleverly combines Aristophanes’s characters and plot with music (mostly) performed by Liza Minnelli. (I say “mostly” because the freewheeling Troubies do perform some non-Liza tunes, such as when theatergoers had the cheek to arrive late for their seats after the proverbial curtain had lifted at the Getty Villa’s outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, the company rather hilariously burst out into a sendup of Carly Simon’s 1972 hit “You’re So Vain,” changing the lyrics to “You’re so late, You probably think this song is about you…” to mock shame the latecomers.) But the majority of the humorous riffs are indeed from Liza’s repertoire, in particular from that great 1972 anti-fascist movie Minnelli starred in, Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s brilliant screen adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s 1966 Broadway musical.

With Lizastrata the inimitable Troubies come much closer to hitting their mark and fulfilling the droll promise of their premise than they did with ABBAmemnon. The mashup stars Cloie Wyatt Taylor as the title character, who is so fed up with the continuing conflict between Athens and Sparta that she inspires Athenian women to stage a sex strike, believing that by withholding lovemaking from their husbands and partners, they’ll force the men to end the Peloponnesian War—or, shall we say, the “Pelo-Penis-ian War.” In any case, Aristophanes came up with the idea that later became the pacifist slogan, “Make love, not war”—and to paraphrase John Lennon, “Give piece a chance.”

As part of their sex strike, the Athenian females seize control of the Acropolis, where the city-state’s treasury is located. But instead of referring to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, the Troubies use this plot point derived from Aristophanes’s original text to go beyond sexual politics and to delve into topical issues, too. So, the women’s occupation of the Athens Acropolis provides fodder for farcical references to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Keep your eyes peeled for what may be the stage’s first appearance of a character based on the Q-Anon shaman who, truth be told, has a mindset closer to people living 2400 years ago than today.

Lizastrata’s contemporary allusions also include Malibu-specific remarks and of course the pandemic, serving mostly to express the cast and four-member orchestra’s sheer delight at finally being able to perform in person before a live audience for the first time since whenever, a joy which naturally was enthusiastically shared by the theatergoers. The band’s instruments include banjo, trombone, clarinet, percussion, keyboards, and slide whistle, the indispensable sound for accompanying slapstick.

Matt Walker adapted and directed this deliriously inspired frothy concoction. Like some of the other thespians, Walker plays multiple roles, including a Joel Grey Cabaret-like emcee. Some of the eight actors are switch-hitters, playing gender bender parts, adding to the merriment.

The Troubies’ creative team includes costume designer Halei Parker, who arguably deserves co-star status along with Joe Seely, who has what may be the most original stage credit I’ve ever seen: “Additional Phallus Designer.” The raiments they have rendered are as if the Marx Brothers were set loose in a Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood, combining Greco-style togas with lingerie and sex novelty-like anatomical appendages. Body parts and sexuality are depicted in a decidedly lighthearted as opposed to lascivious way. Instead of apparatuses dispensed by Dave Levine, the “Sex Toy King,” think more along the whimsical lines of balloony tunes.

Depending on what strata of society you’re from, one person’s “vulgarity” is another’s “playfulness.” Actually, you can see more scantily clad pulchritude at nearby Malibu beaches than onstage during Lizastrata. It may be bawdy, naughty, and pushing the boundaries of propriety (if not sanity), but the play never depicts actual graphic sex acts and nudity per se. Oh! Calcutta! it’s not—so get your mind out of the gutter and enjoy the clutter. But if you are easily offended, this play is likely not your cup of ouzo. And as this play does have adult subject matter, you should leave the bambinos at home.

While taking my seat before showtime, however, I bumped into my longtime friend Tania Verafield, L.A.’s great stage actress and granddaughter of the heroic blacklisted screenwriter Bobby Lees. Tania, who is now about six months pregnant, had attended the previous night’s dress rehearsal and returned for the premiere. Before the curtain lifted, I asked Tania how the play was and she uttered what may be the greatest review of all time: “My baby loved it! He danced inside of me the whole time!” she said, rubbing her belly.

Craig Schwartz

Indeed, this production performed at that Malibu Epidaurus, under the stars the way the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed their plays is, like sex can be, a celebration of joie de vivre, as well as of theater itself, performed live onstage for in-person audiences. I don’t know if 2400 years is too soon for a plot spoiler, but let’s just say that Lizastrata ends with a “VJ Day” rejoicing as the forces of Eros prevail over Thanatos. Echoing Liza Minnelli’s siren call that “Life is a cabaret, ol’ chum!” the Troubies ecstatically sing to the flesh and blood ticket buyers: “What good is Facetime alone on your Zoom? Come hear the music play… Life is a cabernet!” (I won’t, however, reveal the truly inspired wordplay at work when our heroine Lizastrata is reunited with her husband—or what his name is!)

Lizastrata may not be enlightening, but it is definitely “delightening,” to coin a term, always entertaining and probably among the most novel knock-offs of Aristophanes’s immortal masterpiece ever. It’s amusing to ponder what future interpretations there may be of Lysistrata. A same-sex female version entitled Lez-astrata? Sexual politics remain front-page news: Just imagine the fun a latter-day Aristophanes could have with the Texas Talibans now putting the “ban” into abortion in the Lone Star State with a law designating vagina vigilantes and a sexual surveillance state of snoopers denying even rape victims’ reproductive right after only six weeks. Perhaps it could be a Bobby Lees-like comedy entitled: Governor Abbott and Costello Meet Orwell?

In any case, the laughter induced by Troubadour Theater Company and its live Lizastrata is worth “a price above Troubies.” If you enjoy good fun and sex, don’t miss it.

Fun fact of the review: Translated from the Greek, Lysistrata means “Army Disbander.”

Lizastrata takes place 8:00 p.m. Thurs., Fri. and Sat., through Oct. 2, at the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades, Calif. 90272. Tickets are available here or (310) 440-7300. See here for more info about the Troubadour Theater.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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