How much wartime loss does it take to transform acquiescence into resistance? The question’s relevance to the present prompted director and choreographer John Farmanesh-Bocca and playwright Eduardo Machado to look to the past for a way to frame the impassioned antiwar message of their new play, “Lysistrata Unbound,” at Odyssey Theatre.
This is not your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s “Lysistrata.” In Aristophanes’ 2,400-year-old allegorical comedy, women of ancient Greece band together to withhold sex until their men stop their pointless armed conflict. Though not without its potshots at Athenian society and the Peloponnesian War, the original was a nimble romp that ended on a note of reconciliation.
“Lysistrata Unbound” retains the basic premise, but it has a decidedly more somber back story and ultimate fate in store for its steely title character, played by aptly named Brenda Strong of TV’s “Supergirl,” “13 Reasons Why” and “Desperate Housewives.”
The genesis of Lysistrata’s no-sex campaign is revealed in a prequel in which she receives her only son’s corpse from the battlefield. This is but the latest of the men in her family who have all died in combat, and the new back story adds considerable gravitas to the character. (The creators cite Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan as their source of inspiration.)
In Strong’s assured performance, the aristocratic, apolitical Lysistrata cycles through grief, rage, rebellion and transcendence as her protest movement unites Athens’ bifurcated female populace — first her fellow housewives and then the courtesans.
The world of this play is one of starkly polar opposites, reinforced by Farmanesh-Bocca’s signature emphasis on visual imagery and movement-based storytelling. In a witty modernist take on ancient Greek tropes, the female chorus in alluring red dresses drape their synchronized dialog in fluid choreography, while the bare-chested male warriors bark and grunt their way through jagged, aggressive posturing.
The sharp contrast in the presentation and archetypal characters links the piece to its ancient theatrical origins, but the graft of modernist sensibilities is not a seamless one. Every thought and motive is spelled out with declamatory zeal, and the lack of subtext, or even subtlety, is particularly problematic when trying to incorporate the complexities of gender inequality and sexuality.
As in its predecessor version, Lysistrata’s revolt seems headed for a triumph of female empowerment. She even persuades a committed soldier (Aaron Hendry) to defy the orders of his sleazy, bellicose General (Vito D'Ambrosio). Here, though, it provokes serious retaliation from the entrenched patriarchy — an oppressive status quo embodied in the imperious elder statesman (Apollo Dukakis). The departure from an expected comic wrap-up makes for an earnest, well-intentioned cautionary finale.
However, it lacks the impact and elegance of Farmanesh-Bocca’s previous collaboration with Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, “Tempest Redux,” which transformed Shakespeare’s comedy into tragedy with a shocking final visual pivot. In comparison, this is a slow-building re-interpretation, its little jests rounded with a weep.
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Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 4. Additional performances 8 p.m. June 28, July 11 and July 25
Information: (310) 477-2055, www.odysseytheatre.com