Put aside all expectations of an Aristophanes comedy. Eduardo Machado’s new play, Lysistrata Unbound, is no light-hearted romp about a bunch of Athenian women who cut off all sexual contact with men in order to bring a halt to the endless Peloponnesian Wars. No, this show, under the inspired direction of John Farmanesh-Bocca (Tempest Redux, Ajax in Iraq and other innovative theatrical experiences), calls to my mind the fervent years of crisis in the 1960s, when protest was a serious, sometimes deadly confrontation with power.
Farmanesh-Bocca, the artistic director emeritus of Not Man Apart—Physical Theatre Ensemble, brings that company’s aggressive physical style of dance-based performance to the creation of a blistering anti-war polemic aimed at the seemingly quixotic notion of ending all war through the power of feminine will, the aim of which is, to borrow from Hamlet, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” By way of a prologue, two choruses, one male and one female, present themselves in dance. The chorus of men are lightly garbed, their martial masculine physiques on display as they perform vigorous, warrior routines in unison punctuated by non-verbal vocalizations—a growling, barking expelling of sound. The women—lithe and supple, adorned in red, sleeveless, floor length, close–fitting gowns slit to the hip—are silent as they go through their graceful, smooth, sinuous movements.
The action begins when the men enter bearing a body on their shoulders, which they lay on the ground. A young soldier, Hagnon (Jason Caceres), hardly more than boy, hobbles in with a stick for support, clearly wounded. The dead soldier is the only son of Lysistrata (Brenda Strong), the product of a late in life pregnancy. Lysistrata, in her bereavement, refuses to allow the body to be buried bringing her into conflict with the general, Adeimantus (Vito D’Ambrosio), and a senator (Apollo Dukakis), who run out of patience with her flouting of their concept of the social order, meaning of course, male dominance. The men, with their physical and social power, shoulder Lysistrata out of the way, and in so doing create a rebel. True to Aristophanes, Lysistrata foments a strategy to combat the men by denying them sexual intercourse. She is able to enlist nearly all the women in her protest, including the well-paid courtesans. There is however no easy resolution. This is 2018 CE. There is no “gorgeous young woman called Reconciliation (Wikipedia)” to smooth the way to a happy end. There is a ray of hope in the call for an end to war. One soldier named Kinessias (Aaron Hendry), professing his love for his wife Myrrhine (Sierra Fisk), joins the rebellion.
As the character of Lysistrata carries the hope of the world on her shoulders, so Brenda Strong carries the show. Her performance is powerful and passionate. All the other characters are essentially archetypes, which is not to say they are dull. Indeed, this company of players expresses the same level of ardent commitment as Ms. Strong. Their bodies, hearts, and minds are totally in the game. The commitment to social justice and the end of war matches what I saw and participated in back in the day, when theatre groups hit the streets in protest and El Teatro Campesino encouraged farm workers to throw off their chains.
This stellar ensemble of actor/dancers includes the talents of Jo Bateman, Laura Covelli, Laura Emanuel, Steven Jasso, Casey Maione, Sydney A. Mason, Dash Pepin, Briana Price, Jones Welsh and Cynthia Yelle. They are supported by the talents of set designer Mark Guirguis, lighting designer Bosco Flanagan, sound designer Adam Phalen, costume designer Denise Blasor and Josh La Cour, prop master Josh La Cour, choreographer Alina Bolshakova and assistant director/dramaturg Jonathan David Martin. The stage manager is Gretchen Goode. Beth Hogan and Ron Sossi produce in association with Gloria Levy for Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
Lysistrata Unbound, a production of Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, in collaboration with Not Man Apart—Physical Theatre Ensemble, continues through August 4 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.