24 centuries may lie between us and Aristophene’s award for Best Comedy at the Athenian Oscars in 411 BC, but it seems we are the same in so many ways. Ego, comfort with the way things have always been, resistance to change or losing some of that comfort to make other, more vulnerable people less so are themes just as relevant in our tumultuous times as they were in the heyday of Athenian Drama.
In keeping with one of the Bard’s favourite devices, we are not sure what is going on as we enter the theatre. Bard on the Beach’s Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre is thrust style, and as the audience streamed in to this première, we experience chaos, as if the show may go on, but not with polish and panache. Fear not, however. We are professionals!
The play within the play within the play theme risks disappearing into its own navel, but the brilliant architecture devised by Lois Anderson and co-adaptor Jennifer Wise skirts disaster cleverly throughout the two halves. Indeed, we are not sure WHAT is real and what is pretend.
We are drawn into the concept of grassroots political action by the container story, that the performers, as organized union members, think the relevancy of what was SUPPOSED to be staged is less important than the two and a half millennia old tale of widespread wild cat strikes—except these strikes may be geographically and generationally distributed even if the feline metaphor remains firmly closed for business.
The inevitable consequences of completely changing course for a massive effort like this requires make-do on many, many levels. Most noted, and delighting this reviewer throughout both halves, was the seemingly ad-hoc creation of costumes, minimal sets, and props. Our modern garbage-ridden culture forms the raw materials that suffice to keep disbelief minimally at bay. All costumes are made of garbage. Plastic bags, bottles, tin can lids, cutlery glued to cardboard armour. It’s fabulous. The design is impeccable. And also delightfully cheesy. Headwear specifically were a delight to puzzle out, not to mention swimming aids delivering priapic comedy as the effects of the women’s strategy to broker peace throughout Greece by letting no piece be had by the warring men. We are continually reminded that, yes, it was supposed to be another play, and also not approved by Bard Management, as Christopher Gaze manages to both play a version of himself, as well be a generous if unwitting patron by providing raw materials for the guerrilla set & costume design; fans of classic Carol Burnett sketches may discover a few things to chuckle about. Indeed, there are many subtle allusional delights to wrinkle out of the various fight scenes, especially the battle of the Olds, marvellously enhanced by the sound design and musical adaptions of familiar pop culture pieces.
This is a play of timeless endurance, and will continue to be so until we humans learn that enforced roles based on any learned behaviour may be comfortable, but they are not true to the potentials of the people being labelled. The reality of common expectations of age, gender, status, respectability and accepted boundaries are dashed before us in layers that blur the lines between entertainment and social commentary. And the cast delivers this in spades. This is not a play that lives safely inside the expected box of the established theatre. It starts by kicking massive holes in the fourth wall, then goes to town with the rest of the understood structure. We struggle to find a wall left standing from beginning to end. There are NO walls discernible here. Stopping sex stops many things!
The cast has the delightful challenge of playing the many characters within Lysistrata, but also playing themselves delivering the lessons of Lysistrata to our present day reality.
Quelemia Sparrow, as the designated First Nations performer, repeatedly pulls us back to break out of character, pointing out that colonization lies under everything. Adele Noronha as the most Person of Colour performer and also the most activist character gets the hardest job: being stereotyped for taking ethical actions that also break our existing laws.
Colleen Wheeler delivers great comic relief in her eponymous role under the Mad Dane. Adding the complication of familial wall-breaking characters, Wheeler parodies the stereotypically star attitudes people love to loath.
Sound design. Brilliant, brilliant use of LIVE music, woven delightfully into the structure to delight and astound for it’s immediacy and Bauhaus-style integration of function as form. The lighting, noticeable to the reviewer by the newfangled LED fixtures, also brought comedy and tragedy to life (in the theatre, night is blue!), and the previously mentioned costumes and props.
Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in 411 BC. It’s about a sex strike to stop the stupid warfare between Athens, Sparta, Thebes, etc. The eponymous character organizes the women of those city states to cut off their favours unless the killing stops. Transferred into the 21st Century, it’s every bit as topical, relevant and important as is Athens must have found it. And, as a friend noted, “Lysistrata. Sounds like some sort of many layered condo association….” Yes. Very 21st Century Vancouver.
Lysistrata runs at Bard on the Beach in Vanier Park until September 13. Go see it. You’ll be very glad you did.
~ reviewed by Bruce M. Campbell
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