If you take the stairs to see the Montford Park Players production of Lysistrata at the Asheville Masonic Temple, you will be lured to the third floor stage with harp music. At the top of the stairs waits a uniquely coiffed gentleman in a toga to prime you for your departure into the world of the play. Members of the audience are then asked to choose their alliance: Sparta or Athens. The performance that follows this interesting introduction is an enthusiastic effort with some genuine laughs, but one that just missed the mark.
The original production of Aristophanes' Lysistrata in 411 B.C.E was borne from the ludicrous idea that women could have any influence in the man's business of war. His farce was not a comment on gender equality of any kind but rather the manifestation of an idea so ridiculously outlandish that there could be no reaction to it but laughter. However, Lysistrata today has become an icon of a much higher purpose. Her strong will and determination have provoked many political acts by and for women. Most notable of these was The Lysistrata Project on March 3, 2003, in which the play was read by thousands internationally as a statement of peace against the war in Iraq. Other Lysistrata-inspired political acts include Colombia's "The Strike of Closed Legs" to end gang violence in September 2006 as well as the successful week-long sex strike in Kenya that helped put an end to a government crisis.
The play is a unique concoction of socio-political themes steeped in parody and farce. When you take some legitimate topics and toss in war, conflict, and sex – complete with scantily clad ladies and erect phalli – it's a recipe for a wildly good time. The problem that often arises with Lysistrata (as with any other work not originally written in English) is one of poor translation. The Douglass Parker adaptation performed by the Montford Park Players divides Athens and Sparta through language. The Athenians speak eloquently in their fine attire while the Spartans drawl their lines with thick Southern tongues while clothed in more contemporary and somewhat stereotypical redneck getups. While this version might work well in the classroom to deliver a relatable metaphor for the rough-and-tumble Spartans against the more philosophical Athenians, it does nothing to highlight many of the key themes that have made the play so resilient and relevant. The cornerstone of these themes is that the true division lies between men and women as opposed to Athens and Sparta.
All elements of this production are obviously executed with the best intentions. The cast is enthusiastic, the set gorgeous, and the costumes beautifully constructed. Ultimately, however, it lacks a sense of cohesion. Roller skates, gender-bending roles, and incorporation of a global array of accents all add a jolt of good-humored excitement, but I regrettably can't see how such elements are instrumental in telling Lysistrata's story. Interesting choices are a boon to any production, so long as they are purposeful!
I understand the desire not to be mired down by politics or entrapped by too much perversion that can sometimes accompany this play, but I think that a real opportunity was missed here. Parody can often be one of the most successful means of stimulating thought and reflection, although it is difficult to play up parody when it may not be accentuated in the script. Overall, I think this is a valiant effort but it is my view that this green but spirited company would perhaps have been better served by a more relevant and cohesive script.
This production of Lysistrata continues through April 24. For details, see the sidebar.