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Have you ever laughed at a joke that was blatantly overtly sexual, or a fart joke, and had a friend or parent chastise you? “That humor is so crude and disgusting! Find something more civilized!” And then, if it’s your parents, they sometimes go off and mutter about the way things are going downhill these days, and how back in their day humor was all clean…

The literary among you may well counter with Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” citing the string of fart jokes in the Miller’s Tale. But the theatrical among you would do better to thank the Greek playwright Aristophanes for making crude humor a classic in his play Lysistrata, which the staged reading troupe Improbable Fictions performed at the Kentuck Art Center during the artistic week leading up to the Druid City Arts Festival.

Directed by Steve Burch, a professor of theatre at UA, Lysistrata is a comedy written in frustration over the long, bloody Greek civil war between city-states Athens and Sparta, the Peloponnesian War. In the play, the women of Greece who have been left behind by their warring husbands and lovers, have become increasingly frustrated. The Athenian woman Lysistrata (Natalie Hopper) has decided to put an end to the fighting by forcing the men to make peace. So she convinces the other Greek women to withhold from their men something they desperately would want: sex.

The comedy that erupts from there often involves the rather strong sexual desires of both the men and the women. While the women attempt to pull off ridiculous antics to convince Lysistrata to let them leave their siege of the Acropolis, the men have slightly more… obvious problems.

Hopper manages to comport herself as an intelligent, driven woman and natural leader, unwavering and unafraid of intimidation. Her Spartan counterpart, Lampito (Susie Johnson), brings similar tactics to her home, trying to get all sides of the conflict to the bargaining table. Combined with the other women of Greece (chorus played by Amber Gibson, Dakota Park-Ozee and Dori Burns) and, notably, the leader of the female chorus and one of the elder women who seized the citadel (Deborah Parker), the women manage to thoroughly browbeat the men through only words that sometimes hit below the belt and some foul smelling “water.”

Lysistrata’s friend Cleonike (Allison Hetzel) and Myrrhine (Molly Page) more often show the weaker side of the women’s cause, vocalizing an extremely strong desire to play find the snake, or to have their men “bring home the bacon.” (If you ever need some innuendos for sex, this play is rife with them as well as sexual positions, like “The Lioness on the Knife Handle.”) And, as the men, who we find out late in the play are disgusted by the very idea of taking matters into their own hands (One proclaimed “I don’t want to go blind!”), grow more and more agitated by the situation, the humor grows more and more obvious.

In a particularly stand-out scene, Kinesias (Joey Gamble), Myrrhine’s husband, walks onto the stage sporting what could only be described as a small campground below his belt. It is a non-stop carnival of hilarity watching Gamble’s attempts to woo his wife (as well as anyone in the audience willing and able to assist in his relief) while she, instructed by Lysistrata to tease her husband into even more agony to expedite the peace process, finds more and more excuses to delay the process. Page, as she is often so good at doing (most recently in Theatre Tuscaloosa’s Noises Off), plays the part of seductress turned trickster perfectly. And Gamble’s extreme physicality and spot-on begging makes us able to feel sympathy for him, though laughter at his situation comes foremost.

But the other men find moments to stand out as well. The men’s chorus (Frank Sharpe, Eric Marble, Jr. and Asher Elbein) led by Nic Helms makes its mark by being falsely courageous and heavy with bluster, and then screaming and scampering off when threatened. The only man who seems initially unaffected by these events is the Athenian Magistrate (Mark Hughes Cobb), who chastises the chorus and takes Lysistrata head on. Of course, as time wears on, he too finds himself trying to hide his discomfort and, after a talk with a limping, uncomfortable Spartan herald (Motell Foster), the peace summits quickly begin as soon as Lampito drags a fidgety Spartan ambassador (Russel Frost) onto the stage.

The plot is humorous enough in its concept and even more amazing in the translation chosen. But with impeccable physical acting by the men and the hilarious switch from sexual frustration to viciousness by the women, this is one show you would have to have seen to get the full effect of the hilarity, bacon, tube socks and all.

If you did miss it, you can hear the mp3 of the performance, as well as find information on upcoming readings, on the Improbable Fictions blog.

~srandall

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