No sex! No fun! Not ‘til there’s peace for everyone! Not sleeping with our men until they all find peace again! The age old protest of Lysistrata cries out in a new hybrid fashion of modern freestyle rap set against a gathering of ancient Grecian text as the Theatre Department at Towson University takes Aristophanes’ classic to the stage for their winter/spring main stage production. Directed by Yury Urnov, this modern transient production speaks to the millennial generation with its edgy hip-hop approach and convoluted blend of modern slang slung into the original text.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger finds the appropriate blend of modern street grit with elegant architecture of Ancient Greece. With the subtle Meander pattern around the edge of the circular stage, which is in turn painted similar to a sun dial, Ettinger brings these elements of classic Greece against the harsh strobe lights and decaying ruins of the Acropolis, the call to the modern element of the production.
Costume Designer Rebecca Eastman creates a cacophony of fashion upheaval in her design work. The women’s outfits, ranging from cute cowgirl to sexy fighters along the lines of Katniss Everdeen, make bold, albeit jumbled, statements about the versatility of the female persona as embodied in clothing. There is a modern edge to Eastman’s designs; though traditional flowing togas in all their resplendent white make an appearance toward the end of the production as well.
Director Yury Urnov creates a unique fusion of the original Greek text, in this production translated by Sarah Ruden, with a smattered sprinkling of modern slang and crass language that keeps it feeling gritty and edgy. Urnov works with the notion of the chorus in a brilliant and creative manner, taking a new approach to the group of guiding voices by turning them into free-styling rappers. Dividing the chorus into the Men’s Chorus and Women’s Chorus is the perfect split for the gender lines around which the play functions; having them rap-battle it out is epic entertainment at its finest. The downfall to this approach is that because the freestyle rap is not a familiar text and they are moving through it quite quickly at times that large portions of the clever phrasing gets lost to failed articulation and rhythmic override.
Urnov’s combination of modern and classic Greek is strong in some places while weak in others and at times a bit confusing. There are moments of intense beauty in his vision; the floating boards which elevate Lysistrata at the end come immediately to mind. But there are also moments that just don’t work conceptually, either because Urnov did not fully flesh out the concept or because he pushed the concept too far and did not reign it in. The scene where Lysistrata pitches her plan to the girls has the women of the Acropolis filtering out into the audience in a seductive and almost “late-night” cabaret style attempt to titillate audience members. This is an example of where Urnov’s conceptualized vision to reality falls short as once the females are out in the audience they could do so much more than stand there. The devolving chaos of the initial rap battle between the Male Chorus and Female Chorus is a scene where too much of the modern fighting and slamming is occurring and in order to appear cleaner and not look like a bunch of students beating on each other for the sake of gratuitous violence the concept should have been reigned in.
The acting in the production is sublime. Talented students are working with blended text and keeping it flowing smoothly so that intent and emotion still carry through is impressive. Cinesias (Jacob Johnson) and his epic overly-inflated scene is delivered with swift justice and comedic integrity. Johnson handles the scene with cautious frustration and uses his body as a physical manifestation to his ‘sore condition.’
Battle of the sexes takes on a new meaning when the Men’s Chorus Leader (Raymond Lee) kicks it into high gear against the Women’s Chorus Leader (Nina Kauffman). The pair are vicious when throwing down into the epic free-style rap battles and really hold their own against each other. Lee has spirited dance moves that jive well with the hip-hop/raver/underground club nature of the street scenes and Kauffman is radiant with her powerful attitude, finding new ways to lay down feminist power in her fantastic comprehension of how to throw down a beat.
Taking on the title character for this production is no small feat, but accomplished with a warrior’s flare by Elizabeth Scollan. Finding the balance between her grungy exterior costume, her goddess-like movements and booming warrior voice, Scollan takes the role of leader to the max and thoroughly impresses the pants off of those around her. It is her ability to toe that fine line of classic homage and modern wit blended into this hybrid performance that makes her fascinating to observe in this role.
Lysistrata is a quick dash through one of history’s Greek classics, and is well worth observing if you have a quick hour. And the rapping is very impressive.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes no intermission.
Lysistrata plays through March 13, 2014 at the Towson University Center for the Arts Main Stage Theatre— Olser Road in Towson, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 704-2792 or purchase them online.