Review: ‘Lysistrata’ at Spotlighters Theatre

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Baltimore City is home to a lovely nest of small, historic theatre companies, housed in lovely historic buildings, in lovely historic neighborhoods where parking can be tight. Among these, in Mount Vernon, is the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, currently featuring Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata.

Aristophanes' Lysistrata, translated by Sarah Ruden, plays through October 14 at Spotlighters Theatre. Photo credit: Spotlighters Theatre/ Anthony Scimonelli Photography.
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, translated by Sarah Ruden, plays through October 14 at Spotlighters Theatre. Photo credit: Spotlighters Theatre/ Anthony Scimonelli Photography.

Aristophanes, who also wrote The Birds, is well regarded as an ancient Greek comedy writer. Lysistrata, the title character, is a strong woman with a radical idea, so that fits nicely with Spotlighters’ Strong Voices season. I don’t do spoilers, so I’ll simply suggest you focus on the “Sis” part of the name, as in “sisterhood,” and tell you there’s a bunch of rollickingly naughty adult humor in the show.

The overall atmosphere of Spotlighters, or “Spots,” as it is affectionately known, is cozy. It’s housed in an apartment building, and the entrance is below street level: those with mobility issues be advised. The in-the-round seating is rather a novelty for audiences accustomed to proscenium fourth-wall theatre. Ushers request that we please don’t walk across the stage to get to our general admission self-chosen seats.

This sort of staging presents both challenges and opportunities for adventurous, creative directors. Co-Directors Michael Blum and Darlene Harris are up to the task. Working with a fresh translation by Sarah Ruden, they imagine the show against the backdrop of Vietnam and the age of Protest. This conceit works fairly well and makes for bright retro-esque costuming rather than traditional togas. The action is brisk and there are some wonderful moments of physical comedy.

Greek theatre is by nature very talky. I don’t know what sort of effects may have been popular, or really, possible, in Aristophanes’ day, but I’ve always imagined the Chorus providing emotional context, holding small props to suggest settings, possibly providing sound effects. Spotlighters’ presentation of Lysistrata, though played in a modern context, does not rely heavily on modern theatrical amenities. The un-miked actors seem able to reach everyone seated in the small house, and the staging takes care to not present any segment of the audience with more butt-time than any other, and really, not much of it at all. Use of musical instruments lends some auditory interest to a refreshingly low-tech show. Lysistrata, as presented at Spots, is not quite minimalistic, but pared-down. The whole production relies heavily on the strengths of the cast.

The ensemble has several roles apiece to play. We are saved from confusion by use of defining costume elements or accents; sometimes both. The stern expressiveness of supporting actor Evangeline Ridgaway as Lampito is great fun, as is Melissa McGinley’s dipsy comedy as Myrrhine. Lindsey Schrott as Igetis is as strong and strident as a leader of Athens ought to be. The anchor of the production is Amy Heller in the title role of Lysistrata. She is fascinating to watch, thoroughly committed, and her delivery is unimpeachable.

The men also play a variety of roles, and bravely work through some slightly denigrating moments of bawdy physical comedy. The cast moves quickly, sometimes frenetically, on and around the stage, speaking by turns sometimes, sometimes in chorus. The specifics are occasionally a little muddy, but the overall themes are clear.

Aristophanes' Lysistrata, translated by Sarah Ruden, plays through October 14 at Spotlighters Theatre. Photo credit: Spotlighters Theatre/ Anthony Scimonelli Photography.
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, translated by Sarah Ruden, plays through October 14 at Spotlighters Theatre. Photo credit: Spotlighters Theatre/ Anthony Scimonelli Photography.

Old Greek tragedies such as Oedipus and Antigone have earned places in the pantheon of theatrical stylings, deservedly so, and with regular productions in many venues. Tragedy is tragedy, after all, and almost universally accessible to most audiences. Humor, however, is very culturally specific, so “outsiders” might not resonate with it at first. (It’s similar to the satire difficulty: if you’re not familiar with the genre, such as film noir, you might not find the satire Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid humorous). Thus it’s natural that ancient Greek comedy–for whom there are no more “insider” audiences–is perhaps an acquired taste, and not comedy-club levels of hilarity.

Now in its 57th season, Spotlighters is a Baltimore pillar of community theatre. Presenting Greek drama is a bold move, and fits perfectly with the Strong Voices theme of the current Spotlighters season. Lysistrata is a curiosity among performances, raunchily humorous, disconcertingly relevant, and completely worthy of attention.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Lysistrata plays through October 14, 2018, at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. Performances are Fridays & Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Purchase tickets at the door, or go online.

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