The women of ancient Athens are feeling repressed. They have equal rights, they even have the vote, but now the all-male Senate is trying to control their bodies with a “no womb left behind” act.It encourages the production of new male soldiers by banning birth control unless a husband approves it. (Single women? They shouldn’t be fooling around, says the Senate, so why are they even part of the equation?)
This is the Greece of P. Seth Bauer’s new and uneven play, “The Lysistrata Project,” an update of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” in which the women of Greece take up their cause by withholding sexual favors to their men. “The Lysistrata Project” is also the first commissioned work by Simpatico Theatre Project, now in its eighth year of producing plays in Center City.
Bauer, a playwrighting prof at the University of the Arts, has modernized the classics before – specifically, Euripides’ “Iphigenia at Aulis,” which I’ve not seen. For a work with allusions to modern-day America, his take on “Lysistrata” impressively retains much of Aristophanes’ structure and plot. This comes with its own double-edge; I liked the modern street-talk but it took me some time to synthesize the play’s current flavor with its ancient imploring of the gods and its choruses.
“The Lysistrata Project” would be better at the hundred minutes it advertises rather than the 120 minutes it is. The production itself, staged by Simpatico artistic associate Allison Garrett, suffers from high-decibel abuse, so that the arguments “The Lysistrata Project” expounds come off frequently as shrill rather than thoughtful.
And so it becomes a little tiresome, which is too bad because “The Lysistrata Project” has a lot of merit. It’s often funny, and the no-sex campaign the women run fits in more closely with their campaign against the Senate than it does Aristophanes’ plot, in which women withhold sex not because of gender repression but because they want the men to stop warring between Athens and Sparta. When the play opened in Athens 2,424 seasons back, that was a hot topic – and really, the original “Lysistrata” has retained its urgency partly because we’re still warring.
In America we’re not, according to the letter of the law, still deciding whether women can made decisions about their own bodies, the theme Bauer pursues. So in a sense, this version seems to lack a lesson. What Bauer might be saying here is that the endless and constant debate over Roe vs. Wade and other women’s issues threatens to draw American women back into a more repressive time. If the play is such a metaphor, though, hat doesn’t come through clearly.
Whatever its faults, “The Lysistrata Project” has some standout cast members – all five of the women, led by Miriam White as a staunch but realistic Lysistrata. The production also has some fine scenes, including an appearance by the Greek goddesses that terrifies the five Senators in the play. After all that denial of sex, the Senators end up as standouts in another way which, not so incidentally, is also the way Aristophanes had them appear under their costumes.
“The Lysistrata Project,” presented by Simpatico Theatre Project, runs through June 2 at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5, Ninth and Walnut Streets. www.simpaticotheatre.org