Script rel­e­vant to to­day

UA, UAFS mount con­trast­ing pro­duc­tions of Ly­sis­trata.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - LARA HIGHTOWER

Given the con­tentious elec­tion cy­cle that ended in Novem­ber and the con­tin­u­ing po­lit­i­cal in­trigue of the new year, it’s not at all sur­pris­ing that both the Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas and the Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas at Fort Smith chose Aristo­phanes’ po­lit­i­cally themed com­edy Ly­sis­trata for their the­ater sea­sons. But nei­ther school’s the­ater depart­ment could have pre­dicted how on-the-nose the Greek com­edy would ap­pear in to­day’s world of women’s marches and fe­male-cen­tered ac­tivism. The play de­tails how Athe­nian women banded to­gether to end the Pelo­pon­nesian War — by with­hold­ing sex from their sol­dier hus­bands.

The play and its theme — women’s ac­tivism — might be the same, but the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two pro­duc­tions ends there. Each di­rec­tor has a unique take on the script.

“There are cer­tainly nods to con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics,” laughs Mor­gan Hicks, ad­junct pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas pro­duc­tion. “We were work­ing on a protest scene on the day the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton took place.”

Hicks says she was de­ter­mined to make the script rel­e­vant to the UA Theatre’s au­di­ence, which in­cludes a ma­jor­ity of col­lege stu­dents.

“We want to make sure, if we’re do­ing a clas­sic piece, that it means some­thing to them and has rel­e­vance to their lives.”

Hicks rou­tinely teaches Ly­sis­trata in her the­ater his­tory classes, where it is a pop­u­lar script be­cause of its frank­ness.

“[Stu­dents are] al­ways sort of shocked by how ag­gres­sive the lan­guage is,” she says. “It’s not gen­tle. We’re used to read­ing a lot of things with in­nu­en­dos, but this has out­right ref­er­ences to sex­u­al­ity and that’s al­ways in­ter­est­ing to the stu­dents. They’re sur­prised it was writ­ten in 411 [B.C.]. It’s al­ways fun to talk about that and how ex­plicit the com­edy was for the Greek au­di­ences.”

Hicks’ Acrop­o­lis is an up­scale mall in Las Ve­gas, gor­geously imag­ined by scenic de­signer Shawn Ir­ish and scenic pain­ter Susan Crab­tree. She’s care­fully cho­sen a sound­track of con­tem­po­rary songs — from 1960s pop to coun­try to hip hop — with ap­pli­ca­ble lyrics to sub­sti­tute for the tra­di­tional Greek cho­rus. With Cece Marie’s hip chore­og­ra­phy, the group num­bers in­fuse a frothy, bub­bly feel­ing to the af­fair.

“We’re look­ing at these women who would not have had a chance to run for of­fice or even to vote, but they were able to de­cide for them­selves that they wanted to have some power,” notes Hicks. “They de­cided to ne­go­ti­ate with the only power they had and de­cided to go on strike. It’s a hard idea for them be­cause they love their hus­bands, and they love sex­u­al­ity. In the play, there’s not the idea that in­ti­macy is some­thing they’re forced into — and, to me, that’s em­pow­er­ing.”

Sim­i­larly, Hicks says, her pro­duc­tion also flips the idea of ob­jec­ti­fy­ing

women on its head.

“We de­cided to take that idea of sex­u­al­ity and sex­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tion — where you see women ob­jec­ti­fied — we’ve turned that on its head,” Hicks says. “The men in the pro­duc­tion are kind of close to Chip­pen­dales or Magic Mike char­ac­ters. “So there’s a lot of male skin,” she laughs.

Mean­while, in Fort Smith, di­rec­tor David Har­ris has cho­sen the pro­hi­bi­tion-era 1920s as the set­ting for his ver­sion of Ly­sis­trata.

“When we were mak­ing the de­ci­sion about where to set it, I re­mem­bered a story my grand­mother told me about gangs dur­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion era,” he says. “The ri­val gangs went through a whole war be­tween the two dif­fer­ent groups, and women and chil­dren were be­ing tar­geted. What ended up hap­pen­ing was, the women on both sides de­cided not to sleep with their hus­bands un­til the gangs stopped try­ing to tar­get women and chil­dren. I said to my­self, ‘That’s the plot of Ly­sis­trata! OK, we’re go­ing to go with that.’”

Like Hicks, Har­ris has taken some lib­er­ties with the text to make the tran­si­tion to a more modern set­ting work.

“We had to fig­ure out some of the ter­mi­nol­ogy to make things work,” he says. “For ex­am­ple, in the text, the women keep talk­ing about get­ting in­for­ma­tion from the Or­a­cle — I’m us­ing a news­pa­per called The Or­a­cle, and it is what dis­sem­i­nates in­for­ma­tion to the women. You just have to make lit­tle tweaks like that and think out­side the box.”

Har­ris says the rib­ald com­edy of the text has pre­sented some chal­lenges.

“There are def­i­nitely some things that, in our cul­ture, are not go­ing to be ac­cept­able when com­pared to Greek so­ci­ety back then,” he says. “I’m go­ing with more of an An­chor­man vibe on the gags. We can’t present this play with­out the sex­u­al­ity that is in the play, but we have to find a way to present it so that it’s ac­cept­able in our cul­ture.

“There might be a few gags that go a lit­tle far. But as a stu­dent di­rec­tor, I have a pro­fes­sor over my shoul­der telling me when I’ve gone too far.”

Har­ris agrees the pol­i­tics of the play are par­tic­u­larly top­i­cal right now.

“We’re al­ways talk­ing about a woman’s place in so­ci­ety,” he notes. “It’s some­thing that’s been dis­cussed since the found­ing of our coun­try. Even though this was writ­ten so many years ago, there are many fem­i­nist ideals in it. A ma­jor theme is ‘What is a woman’s place in [a] democ­racy?’”

Ly­sis­trata, Har­ris says, is a re­minder that “women have just as strong a place in so­ci­ety as men do.”

COUR­TESY PHOTO

The women of Athens — played by (from left) Tif­fany Ward, Charl Young, Emily Riggs, Mag­gie Har­ring­ton, Hal­ley Mayo, Madi Bell, Na’Tosha De’Von — take an oath to do their part to end the war in the Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas’ pro­duc­tion of Ly­sis­trata.

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