That a 2,400 year old Grecian comedy in which women attempt to end war by refusing sexual favors to their beloved soldiers is still, unhappily, relevant has less to do with its undeniable ribaldry than with the sad fact that its underlying subject — alas — never goes out of fashion. Lysistrata, like The ThreePenny Opera, will always be with us because, as with the poor and the avaricious so keenly represented in the Brecht/Weill masterwork, Aristophenes' concerns continue to plague us.
Brushing aside for a moment the (quite reasonable) criticism that Lysistrata emits more than a whiff of misogyny, the very notion of women solving the world's oldest problem by withholding its oldest pleasure is as attractive as it is unlikely. I'm reminded of something Adele Rogers St. John says to the off-screen Warren Beatty in Reds: "If men really disapproved of war, dear, they'd have ended it by now. Men like war — always have." And, at least in this country, their other halves support that predilection with rather terrifying fervor.
New productions and adaptations of Lysistrata are nothing new (one of E.Y. Harburg's least well-known but arguably greatest musicals was the 1961 flop The Happiest Girl in the World, which contains some of the wittiest lyrics ever written by an American wordsmith — and set to Offenbach, no less.) But the reckless arrogance of our current emperor — excuse me, president — has produced a record number of takes on this superannuated comic fantasy. The latest, Lissa Brennan's Loose Lips Sink Ships (a Shakespeare & Originals presentation at Manbites Dog Theatre in Durham) updates the story to the 1940s, with mixed results.
First, I question the wisdom of setting the play during the Second World War. I'm a life-long pacifist, and I've never subscribed to the quaint notion of WWII as the "good" war. But unlike most modern engagements the stakes then, like the armed attacks that precipitated the Anglo-Saxon response, were too great for inaction, however reluctant, even if the motives were not always pure. While no war is ever wholly justifiable, other, less defensible conflicts — Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, or even the First World War — might provide better targets for satire. Applying the Aristopheneal notion to WWII may simply be too sweeping, or too grand a notion (Brennan's conceit includes Churchill and Hitler — though, thankfully not FDR — being denied conjugal bliss) for the fantasy to support.
Second, having elected to render her adaptation in verse, Brennan creates for herself the problem of using a verbal structure that is often too antiquated for the modern setting. The dialogue, like the feat itself, is impressive and always accessible, despite the occasional sloppy rhyme ("delights me/likes me"). But too often the convolutions required for formal versifying lend a fustian air to what's being said: the period and its slang often clash with the verbal style of the piece. It's certainly poetic, but in much the same way Larry Hart's lyrics were when he strove too hard for cleverness and trod all over his own, usually nimble, tongue. Finally, aside from its prominence as a cautionary catch-phrase during the era, I'm not sure I fully understand Brennan's title in this context. (Are the lips in question labial?)
Where Brennan really scores, comically as well as thematically, is in having each woman codify the one aspect of herself most appealing to her man and then subverting it. A lesser talent would turn this idea into a smutty joke by keeping the idiosyncrasies themselves purely erotic, but Brennan makes each specific to the characters. Thus the scrappy Roxie (Hope Hynes), whose relationship with Spike (the splendid David Klionsky) is one of mutual antagonism, must become the essence of accommodation, while the over-refined society matron Hildegarde (Sherilyn K) employs coarseness and slang to wreck the ardor of Percival (Lance Waycaster), her refined snob of a husband. This gives rise to Hynes's best scene, in which her physical distress as she tries to hold back her natural violence nearly kills her, and to Waycaster's executing a pluperfect spit-take with a mouthful of champagne at Hildy's sudden baseness.
Brennan also defies the playwriting odds by giving us a second act even better, and funnier, than her first. It's here that she gives full reign to her own peculiar instinct for broad comedy tinged with rue, as the Lysistrata figure Meg (played by Brennan herself) takes on the mantle of Rosalind Russell, all shoulder pads and comic angst, sparring with the cynical reporter Harry (Jay O'Berski), a would-be Cary Grant by way of Tony Curtis.
Act Two is so full of invention and good humor, and so endearingly performed by the gifted cast, it can almost stand on its own. O'Berski executes a flawless pratfall, and the timing of his misogynist arias and smug asides is a thing of beauty; Brennan indulges in some hilariously overdone silent movie poses of maidenly forbearing; Waycaster's Percival (in spite of the least well fitting sailor suit I've ever seen) gets so hilariously caught up in an impromptu white boy's blues that he rips the façade of his practiced gentility beyond repair; and Jeffrey Scott Detwiler precipitates the funniest depiction of premature ejaculation I've ever seen.
Brennan's funniest inspiration is her nod to the reality of masculine sexual behavior in all-male settings: the overwrought Beau (Lucius Robinson) falls to his knees in abject despair a la Brando in Streetcar and Harry runs his hands through the boy's hair and down his back like Kim Hunter's Stella before suddenly reacting with shock at what a lack of feminine company is doing to him. It's cunningly conceived, superbly executed, and reflects the play's broader concerns with perfect symmetry. Robinson also scores one of the evening's heartiest laughs by intruding Beau's trademark look of blank, open stupefaction into his paramour's wistful dream.
Derrick Ivey's direction is spirited and perfectly attuned to his playwright's tempi. Brennan's own costumes are often wonderfully apt, although her dresses for Hildy are uniformly ill fitted (and I personally think Meg should sport a wartime snood.) All of the performances are apt, and are rounded out by Meredith Sause's Bronxite platinum blonde Myrtle (or "Moitle," as she and her perpetually frustrated beau pronounce it) and Flynt Burton's sexually masterful southern belle Wysteria. Burton is also the performer most at home with Brennan's verse.
As her extraordinarily supple version of La Ronde proved last autumn, Lissa Brennan is a prodigious talent. (Note that her first name is perfect for this project.) Despite my cavils about Loose Lips, I for one can't wait to see what she comes up with next.
Shakespeare & Originals presents Loose Lips Sink Ships Thursday-Saturday, April 17-19 and 24-26, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, April 20, at 3:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $15 Friday-Sunday, $10 Thursday. 919/682-3343. http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/ or http://www.newfrequency.org/lips.htm.