Los Angeles Times

Aristophan­es wears sequins

An ancient Greek comedy is given a Liza Minnelli glam-up at the Getty Villa.

- CHARLES McNULTY THEATER CRITIC

Aristophan­es wasn’t shy about incorporat­ing a parade of phalluses in his comedies, and neither is Troubadour Theater Company in “Lizastrata,” an appropriat­ely bawdy riff on one of the ancient Greek playwright’s best-loved works.

Yes, you got that right. That’s Lysistrata with a Z sandwiched between an I and an A, because in this campy remake, the protagonis­t who famously organizes a sex strike among Greek women to put an end to the ruinous war between Athens and Sparta owes half of her theatrical DNA and nearly all of her sequins to Liza Minnelli.

The annual outdoor presentati­on of an ancient classic at the Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleis

chman Theater is not usually such a rollicking and risqué affair. It felt almost sacrilegio­us to be cackling, shimmying and occasional­ly blushing in my seat at the majestic Pacific Palisades venue, where just a stone’s throw away the “Statue of a Victorious Youth” stands triumphant­ly in the hallowed silence of the museum’s other archaic treasures.

The stampede of penises is playfully brought about by costume designer Halei Parker and Joe Seely (officially credited as “additional phallus designer”), both of whom have a jocular sense of human anatomy. Breasts come in for their share of drollery as well in a play that sets up two superannua­ted choruses, one droopily male, the other saggingly female.

The ribald jokes are pretty much nonstop, but then what do you expect from a classic that reveals the awesome power of closing your legs? Aristophan­es, writing at a time when Athenian society was reeling from a war that was devastatin­g not only the military ranks but also democratic freedom itself, knew that it was time to remind his audience of brass biological facts.

The art of persuasion, of convincing citizens to act in their own self-interest, was proving to be, then as now, a losing game. Pleasure is what we seek, so why not imagine what happens when a fundamenta­l source of delight — sex — is held hostage for the civic good?

Peace might seem to be the opposite of war, but Freud, deriving insight from the Greek example, recognized eros as the antithesis of humanity’s instinct for destructio­n. “Lysistrata” pits these forces against each other in a naughty battle of the sexes that’s motivated by grief yet executed with dirty-minded hilarity.

A group of fed-up matriarchs conspires to seize the reins of power from a band of chauvinist­ic patriarchs who have become enslaved to the war machine. To achieve the dream of a united Greece, not only are bedroom privileges cut off, but the Acropolis is stormed, leaving the women in control of the treasury — a developmen­t that is seen as much an affront to manhood as the denial of sexual relations.

The Troubies, as they are affectiona­tely known, turn Aristophan­es’ popular antiwar comedy into a cabaret drag show. Embracing the spirit of Old Comedy, Matt Walker, who adapted and directed this madcap update set in Malibu, encourages his troupe to pull out all the vaudevilli­an stops.

Transformi­ng “Lysistrata” to “Lizastrata” allows the group to pull from the catalog of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the songwritin­g duo who helped launch Minnelli’s legend. Parodies of numbers from “Cabaret” and “Chicago” add sizzle to the screwiness.

A tweaked version of “Willkommen,” with lyrics congratula­ting us all on finally being back in a theater, is performed by Walker, who takes on the role of Emcee along with his other duties on and offstage. The excitement generated by the “Troubadorc­hestra” when these kinetic strains are first heard is hard to quantify, but boy was it intoxicati­ng to be in an audience hearing live music again.

This homage to Liza’s musical past works as well as it does because it’s taken seriously. The dynamic talents of the production’s star, Cloie Wyatt Taylor, demand that the other cast members rise to her level. Her Lizastrata balances satire with virtuosity, so that when she sings and dances we’re not just giggling — we’re agog.

Comedy from its very beginnings didn’t shy away from topicality, and this production finds humorous targets both in the pandemic and in the Jan. 6 insurrecti­on, which doesn’t politicall­y track but can’t be avoided in a play depicting a mob takeover of a pillar of government. Everything is fair game, and if there’s any upside to the insanity we’ve all been living through it’s that it has provided a trove of comic fodder.

Lizastrata’s convocatio­n of women from the region — ranging from Ojai Amy (Suzanne Jolie), a vegan who loves her yurt, to Karen of Orange County (Amanda Pajer), who immediatel­y wants to speak to the manager — brings the humor immediatel­y to a boil. L.T. Martinez and Rick Batalla, playing two salty Athenian wives, deliver wisecracks with genderbend­ing snap. And the Spartan contingent naturally invites all sorts of muscular sight gags.

The production isn’t quite able to sustain the hilarity. The twists and turns of Aristophan­es’ farce aren’t always well managed. Sometimes the comedy is belabored, and the musical spoofing occasional­ly hits a sophomoric note, as when the Kander & Ebb classic “New York, New York” becomes “no pork, no pork.”

The liveliness of the staging comes at the expense of the play’s lyricism. Admittedly, it’s not easy to duplicate in English. Having read several different versions, including Aaron Poochigian’s adroit edition published earlier this year, I can see why “Lysistrata” in performanc­e often amounts to an undergradu­ate protest vehicle with a nearly insurmount­able translatio­n challenge.

But poking around in an old paperback anthology that includes Douglass Parker’s “Lysistrata,” I came across a ticket stub for a National Theater of Greece production that I saw at New York City Center in 2004. The memory of that staging reminded me that it is possible to keep song and shtick as well as poetry and politics in balance. That equilibriu­m is not quite there at the Getty Villa, but the zany Troubadour update is the truest to Aristophan­es of any American production I’ve seen.

Greek tragedy is famous for engenderin­g catharsis. “Lizastrata” offers a different kind of release — and to my mind just as salubrious. I could feel the stress I carried into the theater dissolve as I delighted in the healing madness of a 2,400year-old play reborn for Los Angeles today.

 ?? Craig Schwartz ?? IN TROUBADOUR Theater Company’s “Lizastrata,” Cloie Wyatt Taylor, center, saucily leads an antiwar campaign. With Jess Coffman, left, and Suzanne Jolie.
Craig Schwartz IN TROUBADOUR Theater Company’s “Lizastrata,” Cloie Wyatt Taylor, center, saucily leads an antiwar campaign. With Jess Coffman, left, and Suzanne Jolie.
 ?? Craig Schwartz ?? IT’S “CABARET” time in ancient Athens in Troubadour Theater’s “Lizastrata.”
Craig Schwartz IT’S “CABARET” time in ancient Athens in Troubadour Theater’s “Lizastrata.”

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