In comedy, timing is everything.
Classics at Brucemore had scheduled “Lysistrata” for July 2008, but staging “such an outrageous comedy” didn’t feel right in the wake of devastating floods just weeks earlier, said director Leslie Charipar. She’s one of the co-founders of the summer play series, and when it came time to choose this year’s show, three committee members each said “Lysistrata,” without consulting each other.
“It seemed like a unanimous decision,” she said.
So tonight (7/13) through July 22, Hellenic high jinks will be in the spotlight — just as lively today as when Aristophanes’ battle of the sexes debuted in Athens in 411 BC.
It follows the pitfalls and pratfalls when the women of Greece decide the quickest way to end the Peloponnesian War is to withhold sex until the fighting ends — which naturally, whips up a different kind of conflict for virtue over valor.
“It’s a rare comedy among the Greeks,” Charipar said. She’s using a 2003 translation by Sarah Ruden, which will resonate with modern audiences. “It’s a pretty relevant and contemporary interpretation, but it’s a classic piece of theater.”
That’s something the Brucemore troupe specializes in, launching with the Greek tragedy “Medea” in 1996, then moving through the centuries, from Shakespeare and “Cyrano de Bergerac” to 20th century classics dripping with drama, including “Our Town,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Lysistrata,” however, aims straight for the funny bone.
“It’s all about the power play between men and women,” Charipar said. “In the context of Greek times, these women rise up, gather their counterparts from all over the land, and agree not to have sex with their mates until the war has ended. That has always been, and will always will be, that power play that happens between men and women.
“What is fun about this play, is that because it’s so far away, it’s as if this is the first time women have thought of this — the first time women came up with a great strategy to have some sort of an impact on their world,” she said.
Hannah Spina, 29, of Cedar Rapids, is relishing the title role, which she said “blasts” her outside her comfort zone.
“I’m pretty square, so it’s been fun to let loose and just say these absurd things, and to say them on this stage. I’ve already warned my parents,” she said with a laugh.
She described Lysistrata as “outspoken,” “brave” and “a little obnoxious sometimes.”
“She gets very worked up,” Spina said.
“Since it was written so long ago, I would almost call her the first feminist. She’s so confident and believes so much in the power of the female mind (and) refuses to be discounted. She knows the women are capable of so much, and she doesn’t understand why the men can’t see that. ...
“It’s nice to play a character who has such a strong conviction. She’s really smart, so it’s been kinda cool to get inside her head a little bit and understand these ideas that she comes up with and then is so adamant that they be listened to.”
The show features a multigenerational cast of about 20 players, which adds another layer of conflict to the schemes.
“Your Greek chorus is old men and old women, and then the players are young men and young women, so it’s almost that notion of when you’re in your 40s and you’ve got a recent college grad coming in and they’ve got this great idea, and you know why it’s not gonna work, but you let them roll with it,” Charipar said. “It’s the Millennials thinking they’re so smart, and the mature folks going, ‘All right, we’ll see how this plays out.’ So we’ve got these great perspectives onstage that for sure will represent everyone in the audience.”
Visual cues will further bridge the ages, as well as the centuries.
“We’re blending ancient with contemporary,” said Charipar, who also is doing the costumes. “While everyone will have a base of a toga or a traditional Greek (garb), they’ll be checking their phones, and they’ll be wearing ties and jackets — they’ll (serve as) contemporary signals of who these people are.”
She drew her inspiration from the New Yorker’s political cartoons that use exaggerated images like the laurel wreaths around the head.
“We’re going to take stereotypes and were gonna blow this up to move it from as far as real as possible,” she said. “The bawdiness will make sense, because it isn’t real people, it’s a bunch of clowns up there.”
With all the sex talk, the show is not one for kids younger than middle school, Charipar said.
“It’s not foul, but there are some euphemisms parents probably don’t want to have to explain right now. And the visuals — by time we get to second act, there’s all kinds of visual stuff.”
But she’s not taking the visuals so far afield that audiences would squirm.
“That is death to comedy,” she said. “I don’t want to go so far that we’re going to alienate a part of the audience.”
She just hopes people will take a chance on seeing a lesser-known title.
“It’s an outrageous, cartoon comedy,” she said. “I’m truly hoping the word gets out that this isn’t stuffy, you’ll understand it, you’ll laugh and have a good time. It’s a little bit interactive.
“We may be going back to the Greeks, but it’s going to be a little different than what you’ve seen out there before. It’s a little looser, the audience is part of our reality, and I’ve got a bunch of funny people onstage. I’m hoping that even though there isn’t a huge name recognition, that the word will go out that it’s a blast, that it’s really fun,” she said.
“Of course, you could be watching somebody read the phone book out at Brucemore on a nice night, with a bottle of wine and a bucket of chicken.”
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WHAT: Classics at Brucemore presents “Lysistrata”
WHERE: Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater behind Brucemore mansion, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 13 to 15 and 20 to 22
TICKETS: $15 to $20 advance at Brucemore.org; $25 day of show at gate or (319) 362-7375
EXTRAS: Gates open 6:30 p.m.; bring blankets, chairs, picnics, beverages; no pets allowed
RATING: Recommend for mature audiences