The more things change, the more things stay the same. 2,500 years after Aristophanes first suggested women could end a war by kicking powerful husbands out of their beds in “Lysistrata,” the idea is still compelling to playwrights and politicians alike (a Michigan state representative recently suggested a similar strategy).
The Bard’s Town Theatre executive director Doug Schutte premiered his own adaptation, “Misses Strata,” Thursday at the restaurant/theater. Directed by artistic director Scot Atkinson, “Misses Strata” runs through June 23.
Schutte’s production moves the play from ancient Athens to modern-day Washington, D.C., where Misses Strata herself (Amy Steiger) is tasked with the monumental challenge of convincing a group of exasperated women that they can effect change in the capitol by refusing to have sex with their husbands and lovers until our nation’s male leaders agree to work together to end legislative gridlock.
The genius of Schutte’s script lies in its equal-opportunity offense—men are sexist pigs, but women are flighty, easily distracted by Oprah and chocolate. Republicans are greedy creeps, Democrats are clueless creeps. The play takes no side but that of the ideal America, a nation founded on courage, war and debt, and now sadly bereft of the former.
One might be tempted to assume that “adapted from Aristophanes” means an evening of high-brow theatre. Fear not. Despite its pedigree, “Misses Strata” will not be mistaken for smart political satire, nor do you need a background in Greek literature or political science to get the humor. Schutte’s affection for raunchy sketch comedy is evident in this production. Sex jokes, of which there are many, are shamelessly broad and hit over and over, and the sight gags are relentlessly puerile. And yet it’s still quite funny, thanks to an ensemble of fearless comedians who attack the defiantly adolescent humor (think: the gleeful mispronunciation of John Boehner’s last name) with both hands.
Steiger’s a fantastic straight woman to her crew of reluctant celibates, including a loose intern (April Singer, a real firecracker), a prim English wife (Cara McHugh) and the uptight former First Lady Hillary (Jennifer Levine). Beth Burrell stands out as Laura, whose dramatic transformation from demure wife to inspiring political icon provides the show with its only true character arc. Burrell is a formidable comic talent who wisely side-steps the perils of straight impression or subtle homage, channeling instead her inner Maya Rudolph to craft an unexpected and ridiculous—yet utterly compelling—portrayal of a Texas wife gone wild.
The men are, true to the script, less compelling characters, whose tics are drawn almost wholly from the most memorable of the late-night TV monologue fodder from their tenures in Washington—randy “President Willie” (Schutte himself, who throws his whole body into the role), dopey George (J.P. Lebangood), greedy Mitch (Ryan Watson), creepy Dick (Watson again) and boorish Boehner (Lebangood).
Lebangood might have found his one true role with, hands-down, the most disturbing George W. Bush impression I’ve seen on screen or stage. While Ryan Watson’s Dick Cheney is a pitch-perfect, snarling creature feature, the script doesn’t give him much to do outside of his one joke. It’s sketch comedy gold, but stretches a bit thin over two acts.
In the grand tradition of classical theater, the cast does a lot of standing around and talking, but the pace of the show is quick enough that our attention isn’t allowed to wander. The set, with walls painted like a giant American flag, is visually arresting, but its emptiness leaves the actors with little to interact with save each other, and the dialogue is often repetitive.
Because the men haven’t been tasked with a real goal, only the vague “get things done,” there isn’t a lot of specific action propelling the story forward. Aristophanes had the Peloponnesian War at stake, could we at least have a farm bill? I admire Schutte’s fidelity to his vision – 2,500 years of the same stupid problems is the play’s thesis – though at times I wished he would stray from it to give us a little drama, more moments of surprising transformations like Laura’s. But there are enough moments of true hilarity to make “Misses Strata” a fun night out—a guilty pleasure, perhaps, but a pleasure nonetheless.