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Limp staging dooms Vortex’s production of ‘Lysistrata’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Aristophanes’ sex farce “Lysistrata” played at the Lenaea Comedy Festival in 411 B.C., the Peloponnesian War had already been raging for 20 years, and would continue for another seven more.

In the end, Sparta would defeat Athens and the Athenian Empire – the Golden Age of Greek democracy, literature, theater and philosophy – would come to an ignominious close.

Like today, comedians were expected to present strong political opinions in a manner designed to provoke laughter, thought and, in some, outrage. Aristophanes was already known for his wild and extravagant comedies, and in “Lysistrata,” the world’s first great comic writer would not fail to astound again. To end the war, Lysistrata suggests to the women of both Athens and Sparta that they stage a sex strike, refusing their men sex until the hostilities cease.

In 2003, peace activists embarked on The Lysistrata Project, whereby thousands of readings of “Lysistrata” took place around the world in protest of the Iraq War. “Lysistrata: A Woman’s Translation” by Drue Robinson was the translation of choice for The Lysistrata Project, and it is the choice of Bridget Dunne, who is directing a production of the play at the Vortex Theatre.

Robinson’s translation is breezy and light, written in rhymed couplets that flow off the actors’ tongues quite easily. Unfortunately, the production fails to live up to the expectations an old classic done in contemporary translation elicits.

Part of the problem is Dunne’s decision to use antique Grecian costumes and setting. The text has been adapted, but the production still seems stuck in the age in which it was written. It practically screams for a more contemporary treatment. The costumes sit awkwardly and unattractively on the actors’ bodies, and the three-dimensional pillars and one-dimensional paintings of the Greek countryside don’t serve the story well today.

So how does one do this play now to make it soar? Any play nearly 2,500 years old is going to be tricky, but I suspect the answer lies in what the play is all about: sex. Although later in the play the men all have erections showing through their Greek costumes, the truth is I never felt the explosive libidinous drive that alone can empower this play. The show needs to be sexier.

Another problem was the interpretation of the male characters. They seemed too stupid, and so were not a good match for the women, who so easily outsmarted them.

Finally, the show wasn’t nearly as funny as it should have been. Doing a play like this is a scary proposition, because it needs to be so insanely funny that the audience members are practically falling out of their seats with incontrollable laughter; otherwise it doesn’t work, it just comes off as silly. In other words, it needed to be completely over-the-top. Dunne has a strong cast, but the necessary style for this difficult old play eluded them.

“Lysistrata” is playing through March 3 at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE. Tickets at www.vortexabq.org or 247-8600.

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