Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Tuesday Evening in the Northwest Bronx: No.11 Productions presents "Lysistrata" at Van Cortlandt Park
Tonight we trekked up to the end of the line of the 1 train to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to see No. 11 Productions' sprightly, sexy one-hour performance of Aristophanes's Lysistrata, adapted and directed by Ryan Emmons.
The only other time we'd seen a production of Lysistrata was on Broadway, at the Saturday matinee before Nixon got re-elected in November 1972. We were a college senior then and we took our friend Debbie, a sophomore, to see in the title role the incomparable Melina Mercouri, nominated for the best actress Oscar for Never on Sunday (for which she did win best actress at Cannes), and later, after democracy returned to Greece, the nation's longtime minister for culture.
That Broadway production, directed by Michael Cacoyannis of Zorba the Greek fame, was widely derided by critics and closed in a week (Debbie and I saw a preview). We liked it, actually. We were 21 and in the antiwar movement and what appealed to us in the production's modernish setting were frequent topical allusions to Vietnam: the use of "effete snobs," a term Vice President Spiro Agnew derisively called us peace activists; the mention of "the un-Hellenic Activities Committee"; and the protesting women saying "Fuck the war!" just like we kids did. Most critics felt the great Mercouri deserved better. In his Times review, Clive Barnes allowed that "Aristophanes does not seem to play well in modern English translation."
We agree. For the past four years we've taught Lysistrata in our Literature and Writing spring class (this year, we taught in the summer, too) and we now think it's a very hard play to stage. A good translation - we use Douglass Parker's from 1964, but we ask our students to bring in others for interesting contrasts - can work well on the page (or e-book reader), but really, the controlling conceptions of the play don't really make logical sense to our lawyerly brain (if men are away fighting a war, just how is their wives' sex strike going to affect them except if they're home on leave, as Kinesias apparently is? wouldn't their chastity-induced painful erections be taken care of with nocturnal emissions or masturbation even if they didn't have sex with prostitutes or each other?).
Nevertheless, Lysistrata keeps being done, especially in times of unpopular wars, and its battle-of-the-sexes theme is always timely. The play is sometimes misunderstood as smutty, and although the original play does have an incredible number of sexual references, scatological jokes and double entrendes, there's also much that is totally obscure to a contemporary reader or theatergoer (such as references to now-obscure events in Athenian history or the mention of a local celebrity everyone in the 411 B.C.E. audience would know was gay).
So it usually has to be cut, altered and re-thought, like all Aristophanes productions (the Curious Frog company did a vastly altered Plutus last year). The No. 11 Productions adaptation by Ryan Emmons wisely dispensed with much of the original - the warring choruses of elderly men and women, lots of discussion of pan-Hellenic unity (Lysistrata, and apparently Aristophanes, didn't disapprove of all wars, just this costly civil war among Greek city-states), details involving peace treaties and references to now-forgotten people and events.
Instead, adaptor/director Ryan Emmons (co-artistic director of the company), in this version - previously seen last summer in Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side for Fringe NYC and at the 2008 Saratoga Arts Fest in Congress Park - has taken a broad (and broadside) approach, getting the comic spirit of the play, its energy and sexual punning, and using a lot of physical comedy, choreography, a little music, and an attractive very young cast (at least they seemed very young to this doddering observer) to put together a neat little package that was fun-filled, sparkling and joyous.
The setting was especially beautiful, even in tne New York City park system. We don't know Van Cortlandt Park well at all; the only day we can remember spending here was the month after we saw Lysistrata on Broadway; on Christmas afternoon 1972, we came here with our then-girlfriend after an early holiday dinner with her father and his wife, who then had an apartment in Kingsbridge, to the south. (We last saw all of them earlier this summer at a bat mitzvah for our friend's daughter.) Van Cortlandt Park looked gorgeous in winter 38 years ago, and it was even prettier this evening.
The play was performed in a sunken courtyard south of the Van Cortlandt House Museum, the oldest house in the Bronx, currently under renovation apparently. The Red Steps, an amazing staircase, served as an upper stage, and the lush foliage around us was truly beautiful.
Margot Perron, the president of the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy, formed last year (not without controversy), spoke first today to the sadly small audience of perhaps a dozen people. (It wasn't easy finding info on tonight's performance, and not easy for those of us unfamiliar with the park to physically find it). She said they'd been trying for years to get some kind of performances here; Black Henna Productions did its Much Ado About Nothing here on Sunday, and this evening we had Lysistrata.
It was pretty much of a light, breezy romp of a production. Lysistrata was presented as a bit of a hectoring grand dame: she never seems to leave the stairway and rarely speaks without benefit of her bullhorn, even when the women are standing nearby.
The roles of the Commissioner, Myrrhine and her husband Kinesias, Lysistrata's blithe neighbor Kleonike, the Corinithian girl (here Corinthia) with the prodigious rear end, and the strapping Spartan woman Lampito, as well as the Spartan herald (named Harold here), are preserved in rudimentary form mostly, and some of the Athenian men and women are given names and characters from recognizable types (the blustery warrior Akillthese and Socraplatristmenideuripphanes, who wears glasses and seems to be an NYU philosophy major).
The troupe was very energetic moved the action vibrantly. The sound - the actors were miked - worked surprisingly well, and the costumes (mostly white gowns for the women and gym shorts for the men, with some simple ornamentation) were perfectly attractive. The funniest scene, as usual, was the teasing interplay between Myrrhine, who's delaying all she can, and Kinesias, desperate to have sex with his wife; the actors added contemporary accoutrements like sunglasses to the list of objects Myrrhine cooks up to put off the inevitable husbandly disappointment.
Some of the inventions worked better than others. The Spartans' dialect, apparently dumb-sounding to the Athenians, is rendered in some translations as Appalachian/Ozarks hillbilly talk (Douglass Parker takes that tack), dese-dem-and-dose Brooklynese, or (in British translations), as East End Cockney; here, Harold the Spartan Herald talks like Yoda, with inverted word order that takes getting used to. But there were wonderful touches such as the cute little stuffed horse that the Commissioner keeps between his legs to "ride" it and the very sweet musical interlude.
All in all, this was a sparkling hour of lively outdoor theater, and the schlep up to Van Cortlandt Park from Brooklyn (on the way up we outsmarted ourselves by thinking the A train up to 168th Street would be faster, but we waited for it for 17 minutes at 14th Street; going home we stuck to the 1 train all the way downtown) was well worth it. We'd come back - even all the way from Williamsburg - for more like it.