Tufts drama department’s ‘Lysistrata’ reinvents a classic

A promotional poster for 'Lysistrata' is pictured. Courtesy Celia Gittleman

Gird your loins, Tufts. The Tufts Department of Drama and Dance will premier the great Greek comedy “Lysistrata” on Thursday, Feb. 15. Directed by Tufts’ own Sheriden Thomas — a senior lecturer in the department — and based on Ellen McLaughlin’s modern adaptation, this version of “Lysistrata” will take a time-honored tale of war, peace, sex and gender into the modern age.

Aristophanes, a famed comic playwright, wrote “Lysistrata” in ancient Athens in 411 BC. In the midst of the Peloponnesian War, a 27-year conflict between Athens and Sparta’s Peloponnesian League, Aristophanes premiered a play in which a plucky Athenian woman, Lysistrata, gathers women from Athens and Sparta alike into a united front to end the war. Their plan? To withhold sex from their husbands until the men make peace. Most of the play takes place outside the Acropolis and treasury, which the old Athenian women seize to prevent their husbands from funding the war. The men attempt to stifle the revolt in an increasingly bawdy sequence of events, until sexual frustration from both genders brings the men and women together (wink-wink), and the long Peloponnesian war to a close.

“Lysistrata” remains a popular comedy to this day, and has been redone in modern contexts many times; famous versions include Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” (2015) centered around gang violence in Chicago, and “Is That a Gun in Your Pocket” (2016) about Texan gun culture. It’s easy to see why: Two consistent themes in human history are war and sexual desire. But this February’s “Lysistrata” reinvents the tale in more ways than one.

First, according to Thomas, this performance will be gender-flexible.

“We changed men and women to soldiers and spouses,” Thomas said. “They’re also called geezers and crones.”

Instead of just women, all genders staying at home will be denying their partners sex. But that doesn’t mean the play will completely disregard gender, explained graduate student and dramaturge Bárbara Casseb.

“It’s not an egalitarian perspective,” Casseb said. “We did try that as a step of the process, but then we realized that [recognizing] gender was also helping us tell the story of how to subvert gender. We do have a lot of playfulness about gender, gender neutrality and gender existing as a binary.”

To purists, this approach may seem inappropriate for a story all about the gender binary. A major theme of the original play is female lust, and the concept that women can suppress their urges long enough to end a historic war is part of the comedy. But Anne Mahoney, a senior lecturer in classics who provided historical background for the play, disagrees.

“I like the approach they’re taking,” Mahoney said. “Aristophanes presents the women as lustful, and wants the audience to laugh at this. But of course by the end of the play we realize that men are exactly the same way, and that they’re all completely motivated by sex.” The only difference now is that Thomas’ version recognizes that from the beginning.

But gender isn’t really the point of Thomas’ “Lysistrata” anyway.

“Downplaying the battle of the sexes punches up the anti-war dimension of the play, and that’s much more useful in this day and age,” Mahoney said. “It’s an anti-war play. It has always been an anti-war play.”

According to Mahoney, the important thing is that peace wins out, and there’s some good vulgar humor along the way. It is a pacifist production, not a study in gender.

“My feeling is, Aristophanes wants the audience to laugh, and he wants the audience to think,” Mahoney said. “If you can do that, than you’re being plenty faithful enough.”

That being said, Lysistrata is a powerful female role, and Mahoney is glad that the production is retaining the original gender of the lead.

“I would have dug in my heels over that one,” Mahoney said.

The other crucial element, Thomas emphasized, is the positivity in the humor and the experience. Thomas chose McLaughlin’s version particularly because of its humor.

“[Mclaughlin is] very funny,” Mahoney said. “[Her version of “Lysistrata”] made me laugh. It’s bawdy, it’s contemporary.”

But Thomas also received special permission from McLaughlin to go her own way with the stage direction and casting. Although much of McLaughlin’s dialogue remains intact, there are some crucial additions that make the performance abstract and special. There will be an onstage band performing original music and lyrics to accompany the show, as well as helping with special effects. Audience engagement will (hopefully) play a role in the show. The costumes and prompts will be bold. (“Look out for the shoes,” Casseb said.) Instead of the dual choruses being men and women who reconcile in the end, the heads of the choruses will be Past and Present.

Because the production is contemporary, parallels to American culture and current events are inevitable.

“[The play] points to our current political climate, both with the explosion of identity politics we’ve had recently,” Casseb said, “as well as to the actual political scenario of America. It’s not dragging the past into the present.”

Every time Past says “Athens,” Present will chime in “United States.” The war will obviously not be the Peloponnesian War, but instead the concept of war, particularly as it relates to the United States.

“We live in a world of wars right now, so any war will do,” Thomas said.

Despite the clear political subtext, this production will not be a “South Park” or Stephen Colbert-style takedown of the current rise of conservatism of America. Politics in general will be more of a nod than a plot point.

“[The play] is political enough as is,” Thomas said. “Cynicism has a huge cost to your personal energy, and it does not bring solutions in my mind.” The production doesn’t want to point fingers, but to bring about solidarity and joy.

When Thomas approached McLaughlin for permission to reinterpret her script, McLaughlin emphasized the importance of maintaining the humor in the play.

“It was right after the [2016 presidential] election, and we were both very much in distress,” Thomas said. “[McLaughlin] said, ‘Don’t go dark. Stay bright with this, people need to laugh.’ Come join the party. Come have some laughs. Join the community, because this is a community. Community is what’s going to get us through this. We’ve got to find each other in all this darkness and have some fun, so that our creativity starts to see solutions.”

As Mahoney has said, Aristophanes would have wanted the audience to laugh and to think. He would have wanted subtle and not-so-subtle nods to current politics. He would have wanted the performance to be joyous and for all choruses and genders to come together in the end. He would have wanted an abundance of phallic jokes. Luckily for Tufts, the Department of Drama and Dance has promised to deliver.

“Lysistrata” will run Feb. 15-17 and 22–24 at 8 p.m. There will also be a panel discussion following the show on Feb. 22. Tickets are available at the box office and the Department of Drama and Dance website at $10 for students. However, tickets for the Feb. 15 preview are available for $5, and all tickets for the Feb. 22 production are $1.