The ribald side of life
With their delightful lyricism, political sniper fire and bawdy verve, Aristophanes’ comedies invite a kind of reverent irreverence. There’s no point in pretending we know how to do them. Let’s just not lose sight of their insouciant spirit as we pay homage to their serious-minded hilarity.
This is the approach taken by director Michael Cacoyannis in “Cabaret Lysistrata: O tempora, o mores,” which closed after a two-day weekend run at the Getty Villa Auditorium. Yes, it’s the same Michael Cacoyannis who directed “Zorba the Greek” and who’s now in his mid-80s. (Ill health prevented him from directly overseeing the staging of this U.S. premiere.)
More of a theatrical presentation with music than an elaborate production, the piece represents a minor offering in the Getty Villa’s theater program, which seems to be sparking more citywide interest than the institution, saddled with municipal restrictions, has yet figured out how to accommodate.
“Lysistrata,” of course, is Aristophanes’ most popular work, a play that will have a life as long as there are people who object to the waste of warfare and enjoy the ribald poetry of everyday life.
The title character, whose name means “undoer of armies,” cooks up a two-tiered plan for ending the protracted military madness of the Greeks: She rounds up the women of Athens and Sparta and asks them to withhold sexual favors from their husbands until peace has been declared. Meanwhile, the older women have been further charged with storming the Acropolis and seizing control of the treasury. Without money, how will politicians finance their ongoing slaughter?
Two Romanian actors, Maia Morgenstern and Vladimir Ivanov, performed all the parts in Cacoyannis’ adaptation. The actors aimed for an arch cabaret style, complete with snazzy piano accompaniment, that took utmost pleasure in the erotic high jinks that Aristophanes sets in motion. In fact, although the work was never offensive, it would be challenging in a family-read newspaper to describe the phallic situations that kept light-heartedly repeating themselves.
Sporting a mop of tousled hair, a clownish glint in her eyes and a passionate Mediterranean demeanor, Morgenstern was indefatigable in her singing, exhorting and occasional splaying of her limbs for teasing fun. She especially thrived on the communal aspect of the evening, and even enlisted a couple of fearless women in the audience to join her collective action.
Ivanov seemed happy to play Morgenstern’s straight man, particularly in the role of a husband whose body is mutinying against the torturous prohibition. The broad style of their comic duet was like a Punch and Judy show for adults with relaxed attitudes about the place of lovemaking in marriage.
To flesh out the action, the voices of Lysistrata’s fellow demonstrators were taped, and a video screen flashed newsreel footage of historic women’s marches for equality. Connecting progressive social movements with the sanity of society as a whole, the production suggested that domestic policies determining how we get along with each other at home affect the way a nation conducts itself internationally.
The most moving moment occurred near the end when Morgenstern turned to the audience and urged us to consider the irrationality of war, with its implicit assumption that one country’s citizens are superior to another’s. “Don’t you all have to die?” she asked. “Knowing your precious days are numbered, why must you fight one another, kill one another?”
Until we’re fortunate enough to have a full-scale “Lysistrata,” this well-intentioned portable version will have to suffice.
No, it doesn’t compare with the theatrical majesty of the play, but the message it imparts from the classical world couldn’t be timelier.