Directed by Julane Havens
Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
The Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company has carved its own niche in the Louisville theater community by producing classic theatre in a format accessible to modern audiences. Like any company, they’ve had their hits and misses. But for the most part, they have earned a well-deserved respect for their contribution to the arts. Your appreciation for any given production by the company will largely depend on your taste in the material and your tolerance for the indulgences by each show’s director.
That is definitely the case with their latest offering, Aristophanes’ nearly 2,500-year-old sex comedy, Lysistrata. Buoyed by a strong cast and great production values, it is a riotously funny show if you can get past some truly excessive ideas by its director.
It’s a fairly straightforward plot. Fed up with the mess their husbands are making of their lives and lifestyles during the Peloponnesian War, the women of several ancient Greek city states, under the leadership of the title character, vow to deny sex to their husbands until all war is ended. This obviously doesn’t go over well with the men, and a new battle is waged – a war between the sexes.
The opening scene promises an evening of truly great theater as Lysistrata (Lauren Argo) confides her plans with her dear friend Calonice (Natalie Fields), and continues on with the arrival of the other women. This version of Aristophanes’ classic (by an unaccredited translator) cleverly combines modern slang and profanity with the original text, elevating the humor and keeping it comprehensible to an audience unused to the flowery speech of Greek theater.
Then the men arrive, and the show takes a sharp left turn into the absurd from which it never quite comes back.
Of the production’s many over-the-top sexual sight gags, the one that quickly becomes tiresome is the one that pervades the evening. Every male character sports a gigantic, misshapen, purple-headed papier-mâché penis. This is riotously funny the first time you see it, but after a few minutes it becomes distracting, and then just complete overkill as every male actor appears that way every time he walks onstage. I’m not sure what director Julane Havens was going for here, as the only comparable reference in Aristophanes’ original text comes late in the play, when two of the male characters sport a “burden” (a noticeable bulge in their pants – the playwright didn’t even use the term “erection”). It just seems to be the lowest type of humor you’d expect to see aimed at undiscriminating 13-year-old boys.
Similarly, late in the play the character of Women’s Chorus Leader (Nick Smith) appears as a drag queen. It’s a clever idea, but Havens again takes it a step too far: the drag performer is still sporting one of those gigantic prosthetic penises. Why? It’s a blatant grab for big laughs where it isn’t necessary, doesn’t make sense, and seems to be ripped off of the climax of every Hurricane Summers performance at Connections; only this time the climax is the whole performance. Smith is a seasoned drag performer and plays the role well, and it’s a shame to see any of these performers upstaged by pointless (and by this point in the show, no longer funny) sight gags.
Excessive indulgences aside, however, the show still manages to entertain. While I do wish Havens would have trusted the text and the performances of her fantastic cast to bring out the inherent bawdiness of Aristophanes’ script without descending into John Waters territory, the small audience in attendance with me was quite obviously entertained. And with good reason: the cast boasted some truly outstanding performances by everyone involved.
As Lysistrata, Argo totally immerses herself in the character and never takes this strong-willed woman over the top. Fields likewise imbues Calonice with a realism that is both funny and well timed; this is a character I want to be friends and dish with! While I wish Ryan Watson, as the Men’s Chorus Leader, would dial back the hysterics just a notch, he was completely believable as a blue-balled husband desperate for the conflict to end. And probably the most believable performance of the evening was by Zach Burrell as Cinesias, a young man pleading for his wife to end the conflict and make love to him. His plight was so funny and pitiable he almost pulled focus away from the giant phallus strapped to his groin (sorry to go there again, but those damned papier-mâché penises were that distracting).
The rest of the cast was also very strong, with some nice moments by the likes of Casandre Medel, Meg Caudill and Brian West, among others.
Props must also be given to the costume design by Shana Lincoln, the lighting and sound design by J. Barrett Cooper, and the set by Havens and Alec Volz. It all comes together to create beautiful visuals. And my earlier complaints aside, I would be doing director Havens a disservice not to mention that she has elicited a series of remarkable performances from her cast and keeps the proceedings moving at a brisk pace that keeps the comedy front and center.
Again, your appreciation for this production will really depend on your tolerance for cheap sex jokes and a few gross-out moments. But it’s still a fun show and deserves an audience. Check it out!
Starring Polina Abramov, Lauren Argo, Melinda Beck, Zach Burrell, Meg Caudill, Hallie Kirk Dizdarevic, Natalie Fields, Kate Holland, Casandre Medel, Ben Park, Ainsley Peace, Emily Pike, Tony Pike, Monty Priddy, Tony Prince, Mike Slaton, Nick Smith, Sabrina Spalding, Ryan Watson and Brian West.
December 6 – 15
The Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company
The MeX Theatre, The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202