The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in collaboration with Not Man Apart – Physical Theatre Ensemble (NMA) presents: Lysistrata Unbound, Produced by Beth Hogan and Ron Sossi in association with Gloria Levy. The play is written by the brilliant Eduardo Machado, and Directed and Choreographed by its ingenious and creative leader, John Farmanesh-Bocca, the Founding Director of Not Man Apart – Physical Theatre Ensemble (NMA).
The play was inspired by Aristophane’s Lysistrata. Even though Lysistrata was written 412 years before Christ as a sex farce, Machado and Farmanesh-Bocca have re-realized the deeper consequences of not following the norms of society. Lysistrata Unbound physicalizes the story of an Athenian woman, daughter, wife and mother, whose role as a woman, like all at that time, was that of a “caretaker of the dead.” (Shelby Brown, J. Paul Getty Villa) Women were simply vessels to birth the sons, send them to war, and then prepare their corpses. When done, they simply dissolved into the background, voiceless and broken, because of the serious stakes involved in questioning, Why War?
Before the play begins we see the women of Athens, moving quietly and singularly onto the stage. They begin to perform their daily tasks; doing wash, scrubbing the floor, day dreaming, etc. in wait for their warrior husbands and sons to return, or not, from the bloody battles.
The women are clothed in Mauve tunics fit tightly against their bodies, shoulders and arms bare, with a slit on the side of their silky clinging floor length skirts. Denise Blasor, the costume designer, has done an outstanding job of creating costumes that are not only sensual, but utilitarian and geared for the movement so vital to this piece for both females and males.
The set and lighting designers, Mark Guirguis and Bosco Flanagan, have blended their efforts to create a sparse set of columns and step levels, and lit with shades of grey wash in patterned pools of light, with red ropes hanging from the ceiling at each corner of the performance space and wound in small circular patterns on the floor.
After a meditative prelude, the stage goes to black, and when the shadowy lights come up, we see male bodies upside down. Men standing on their heads, with slated war skirts of brown and gold over similar colored short tights, and wearing halter straps over their buffed and muscular arms and chests. The men’s movements are so provocative as to be mistaken for snakes writhing in pits, or headless beings. Then with sudden powerful percussiveness, the men jump to their feet in striking positions of Karate Kata’s with balletic lyricism, breathing then falling and forging the battle of impaling, slicing and clubbing the faux enemy and, starting deep in their loins, comes guttural full-throated grunt sounds, pulsing with intermittent breathing, punching and kicking, growling out the repetitive howl of “War! War! War! So Male, so warrior-like, so testosterone filled, that it carries the audience right into battle, perhaps bemused a bit but none-the-less stunning.
Farmanesh-Bocca, in realizing this movement piece with Associate choreographers Alina Balshkova, Jones (Welsh) Talmadge and NMA, engenders an inventive primal interpretation of life in war, which immediately impacts the audience. It both stuns and amuses the viewers who are trying to make right the inverted views of male prowess. The disciplined and explosive energy and sound of the performers are added to the muscular mix. Their legs move in unworldly animal-like movements to strains of strings and cello and haunting rhythms, with a background of intriguing sound designs accompanying the play from beginning to end. The sensitivity of the handling of sound, embellished the heart of the play. This excellent work was done by Adam Phalen and Farmanesh-Bocca.
After exhausting themselves and each other, the warriors grab, wrestle and drop to the floor in fatigue and good humor, while the females slither in with undulating provocative movements, arousing the warriors after a well fought battle. The woman’s breathing and sighing carries through to moans of pleasure, excitement and climax, all intriguingly staged, and the “normal” life and rituals that grip the ancient mythos of Sex, War, and eventual Death are indwelled in our collective psyche.
Played by the stately powerful beauty, Brenda Strong, who has found the soul of this tragic character. Lysistrata’s entrance is quiet and contained as she sees battle-worn warriors delivering her dead son’s body to her door. Her grief is overpowering, her message transcends the norm as she comes to realize the constant loop of sex, war and death. This norm is no longer tenable for her as she lashes out, protecting her right to mourn on her own time and in her own way, as does the woman and inspiration for this piece, Cindy Sheehan, mother of a fallen soldier of the Iraq War, who went from mother to renowned and fearless war resister.
Lysistrata feels there is nothing to lose, having lost her son, her father and her husband, she can no longer contain her ravaged soul and finds her inner “No!” Her journey is fraught with hazards, which starts with her convincing the wives of Athens, led by Sierra Fisk a slender ivory skinned beauty as Myrrhine, married to Kinessias the libidinous man played by Aaron Hendry, a powerful, gravel voiced warrior, who Myrrhine must reject after battle if she is to join such a rebellion.
As the crowd of women expand, they are joined by the courtesans and their lead, played by Sydney Mason, a sensual and articulate lead courtesan, who speaks with brilliant recognition. The courtesans know well the secrets of their clients; the commanders, the warriors, and the Senators. Most all the women are in agreement, yet at the last moment, the plan is rejected by Calonice played by Laura Emanuel.
At first Lysistrata and the Athenian women’s rebellion is met with disbelief by their men, and condemned by the powerful leadership of the Senator played by Apollo Dukakis, whose forceful voice and presence influences the trajectory of the play. Lysistrata and the women then endure name calling and taunts, which accelerate to physical abuse and rape as bared out by Adeimantus and his disheartened and unloved wife, Efimia, played by Cynthia Yelle. The chilling encounter is so well done and the defilement so stunning that it sends a chill through the audience, and the secrets become the partner of the violent spewing from both Efimia and Adeimantus.
As the “movement” continues and Lysistrata’s voice gets more insistent, her challenge provokes the ire and defiance of her enemies, which eventually leads to her torture and death, yet her voice, her spirit lives on, a representation onstage that is physically inspiring and transcendent, done with lights, color, and lyrical physicality. A truly inspiring reminder as stated by Farmanesh-Bocca: ‘Robinson Jeffers suggests in his poem that “the only truly ugly thing is mankind severed from himself, severed from the things mankind is made of (quite literally everything).’ ”
On stage a was representation that was physically inspiring and transcendent, supported by an incredible ensemble of individuals fully focused, challenged by the total commitment to their distinctive roles together and apart, combined with lyrical physicality, light and color. It was truly a riveting, emotional and memorable theatre experience. I left the theatre moved and inspired by the ideas and brilliance that this play conveyed. The work done was so thoughtfully assembled by these talented artists and my only hope was that this exploration could continue forever for all to see.
And a last stirring reminder by Farmanesh-Bocca: ‘Robinson Jeffers suggests in his poem that “the only truly ugly thing is mankind severed from himself, severed from the things mankind is made of (quite literally everything).’ ”
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Feature image: Casey Malone, Sierra Fisk, Brenda Strong – Lysistrata Unbound – Photo: Enci Box.