Sex and Violence | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Theater

Sex and Violence


Published February 26, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

When Americans were fighting in Vietnam, protestors of the 1960s came up with a slogan that encouraged young men to resist the draft: "Girls say yes to boys who say no." But the idea behind the clever catchphrase wasn't exactly new. Almost 2400 years earlier Aristophanes wrote a play about girls saying no to boys who say yes.

The Greek scribe's comedy, Lysistrata, centers on wives who withhold sex from their soldier husbands to stop an armed conflict between Athens and Sparta. Thanks to the efforts of one Vermont actress, the anti-war classic that premiered in 411 B.C. is suddenly au courant as a creative way to address the Persian Gulf crisis.

On March 3, activists and artists in 43 countries will offer 756 -- and counting -- staged readings of the Aristophanes piece about gender-driven domestic disobedience. Productions are scheduled for all 50 states, with eight on tap at various Vermont locations, including the Flynn Center in Burlington.

This global proliferation of Lysistrata began in early January. Vermont Stage Company co-founder Kathryn Blume decided to promote some timely peace-mongering to keep the Bush administration's so-called "coalition of the willing" from becoming a coalition of killing in Iraq.

"I'd already been working on a screenplay that would be a modern adaptation of Lysistrata," explains the 35-year-old Charlotte resident in a telephone interview from her second home in Brooklyn. "I heard that THAW, Theater Artists Against the War, was planning a day of action in March. I thought, 'Why don't I organize a reading as my contribution?'"

She recruited friend Sharron Bower, a resident of New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, and on January 4 they started to brainstorm what would soon be called The Lysistrata Project. "We began dreaming really big," Blume remembers. "By January 5, we'd found people who wanted to hold readings in Seattle and Austin. We spent the entire next week putting up a Web site and contacting everyone we know. Even my old theater teacher in Switzerland said he'd do it. Very quickly, this little thing became international."

Blume emailed Susan Stamberg, a National Public Radio reporter she says has "a soft spot for theater. On January 16, 'All Things Considered' did a story about the project."

Within a week, the Web site had reached "critical mass" at about 1000 hits a day. A short article appeared in the February 6 New York Times.

The idea seems to be spreading rapidly. Lysistrata-mania has inspired culturally savvy dissenters from Beirut to Montenegro, Turkey to Trinidad, Argentina to India, Cambodia to Jerusalem. In Syria, part-time Vermonter Deborah Felmeth has launched a Damascus production. No Russian theatricals have emerged as yet, although Blume did receive an email from the CNN bureau chief in Moscow asking if she knew of any readings he could cover there.

On the West Coast, stage and screen talents Julie Christie, Alfre Woodard, Eric Stoltz and Christine Lahti are involved in one of several readings. Blume, meanwhile, began producing what she envisioned as an equally star-studded New York City show. Six degrees of separation later, the cast includes Kevin Bacon and his wife Kyra Sedgwick, as well as F. Murray Abraham, Peter Boyle, Kathleen Shalfont, David Strathairn and Mercedes Ruehl in the title role.

A suitable site was much harder to find. Blume hoped for a donated Manhattan venue that could accommodate up to 2000. By late last week, she was glad to have secured an 830-seat space at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music. But, most likely, no Lysistrata fan shall go unserved. At least a dozen smaller readings are planned throughout the metropolis on subway platforms, on the steps of City Hall, at churches, in nightclubs, parks and even Grand Central Station during rush hour.

Back in the Green Mountain State, Flynn education administrator Kelly Thomas volunteered to produce a Queen City reading of Lysistrata. It will feature local thespians such as Sue Ball, John Alexander, Tawnya Fogg, Steve O'Dwyer and Kim Bent joining forces with writers Philip Baruth, Ron Powers, David Budbill and David Huddle.

"We wanted people who have a connection with literature and a good stage presence," explains Thomas, who has teamed up with Ruth Wallman to carry out the endeavor. "They'll be on the main stage, but the lighting will be pretty basic. And no costumes, sets or props, just music stands for their scripts and microphones."

Vermont Public Radio commentator Willem Lange is slated to be the emcee and FranCois Clemmons of Middlebury College will sing operatic selections.

Burlington author David Huddle agreed to add his voice to the Chorus of Old Men -- what's a Greek play without a Greek chorus? -- but he didn't want to stand out in the crowd. "I feel this is a way to set forth my position regarding the national and international situation without completely embarrassing myself," the University of Vermont professor says. "It appears to be a modest public gesture."

Coincidentally, among a collection of vintage posters in Huddle's computer is one depicting folksinger Joan Baez and her two sisters below the words: "Girls say yes to boys who say no."

Kathryn Blume's husband and fellow Vermont Stage Company founder Mark Nash said yes to the notion of directing the Flynn event. "We'll only have about six hours of rehearsal, so this is a no-frills show," he acknowledges. "Because the version of Lysistrata we've chosen is all rhymed, the actors will need to read their lines without beating us over the head with it."

Heads aren't the only body parts to consider when mounting a play that Aristophanes penned with ribaldry in mind. "Our translation and adaptation, by Drue Robinson Hagan, takes a lot of liberties with contemporary dialogue that's amusing," Nash says. "We didn't want a polemic. It's really kind of bawdy."

Thomas, who'll be among the Chorus of Old Women, points out that in ancient Greece "they decorated the set with gigantic phalluses. Aristophanes' stage directions refer to 'protuberances.' We won't go that far, but our Lysistrata has very adult themes and language."

To put it mildly: "It won't be easy layin' there when he's all hot to trot!/But if it means the war will end -- I'll swear to this boycott," proclaims Lampito, one of the female characters trying to persuade the combatants on both sides of the never-ending Peloponnesian War to beat their swords into plowshares.

"We'll paint our lips a ruby red, and sprawl and crawl across the bed," recommends her pal Lysistrata, adding: "We'll get our men so riled up..."

Lampito: "...So horny they'll be blind!"

Lysistrata: "We'll then refuse our loving cup, and have our treaty signed!"

The message Lysistrata sends to military spouses is clear. Perhaps even Laura Bush and Mrs. Saddam Hussein will be listening on March 3. If sexual blackmail worked for the embattled Greek city-states, why not the District of Columbia and Baghdad?

"I think anything is possible," says Blume.

The peacenik impresario is devoting all her time to the "zero-budget" operation. "We're running on the financial fumes out of our own pockets," she quips. "We've given ourselves completely over to this."

So much so that Blume -- who performed in such VSC shows as A Streetcar Named Desire and Much Ado About Nothing -- is not acting in the New York Lysistrata. "I would love to, but this is not a career move, it's a political act... Our foreign policy will bring slaughter. I just couldn't stand by and do nothing," Blume suggests, sounding much the same alarm as the fictitious Greek heroine of long ago.

"Lysistrata was just one woman, but she made a huge difference," suggests Thomas.

As Aristophanes himself once observed a different piece of dramaturgy: "These impossible women! How they do get around us!... Can't live with them, or without them!"