American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Adapted by Robert Brustein (retiring artistic director) “& the A. R. T. Company” — presumably, this means that the company collaborated in the course of rehearsal. Directed by Andrei Serban, with original music by Galt MacDermot, lyrics by Matty Selman.
A spirited romp, a sheer delight, along with a (fortunately muted) attempt by Brustein and Serban to assert the relevance of this antiwar play to the inexpressibly painful conflict of Israelis and Palestinians, now in its fourteenth month of mindless retaliatory slaughter. Aristophanes’ play has lost its power to shock; men walking around with phalluses (phalloi, I think) that can be made to stand erect by means of a hidden mechanical device are now no more than charming occasions for laughter and good feeling. Serban and Company realized this very early on (he says, in an interview printed in the program) and so had to go for something else instead. What they went for was good clean fun, with lots of hijinks, a sort of gentle post-modern sensibility brought to bear on an old satirical comedy that may have lost its bite but that still is such good comedy that a musical comedy treatment will not utterly destroy it and may even make it more fun. That, it turns out, is what happens. Cherry Jones is brilliantly cast as Lysistrata, the one character in the play that is costumed in historically accurate dress; all the rest are eclectic choices from saloon bars, country westerns, or the Greek equivalents of denizens of Something Happened on the Way to the Forum The music is actually quite tolerable, even pleasurable (I am not a lover of musical comedy, that’s sure), and the lyrics, like the dialogue itself, are witty and well-written. All the actors are body-miked, of course, and for the most part they are articulate enough to let us actually understand what they are singing.
At the end, the wide line of performers becomes suddenly serious, and, starting with unintelligible whispers that soon become clear, they repeat over and over “Peace and reconciliation.” This is so we know that they know that we may see some conceivable application of this play and production to the conflict in the Middle East and to the global war on terrorism. The fear of irrelevance is clear enough in this strategy. And so we are back with the old question of art as advocacy versus art as entertainment. “Well, it’s an antiwar play, isn’t it?” (the production seems to be insisting). Well, so be it. We were extremely well entertained, all the same.
Oh, the phalloi: they turned out to be made of balloons, and the women seem to be wearing little pin-prick rings on their fingers, with results that became evident late in the play. Vastly amusing. Thomas Derrah was, as usual, superb, this time as an old codger, Helion, the leader of a small troupe of old codgers who probably can’t get it up anymore but are nonetheless in sympathy with the plight of younger, more virile men than themselves. Derrah can do anything; here he does a beautifully timed song-and-dance act that is one of the highlights of the show.