Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, 201 Mercer St., 726-5190. $20–$50. Schedule varies; see intiman.org. Ends Sept. 15.
The mixing of moods in theater was a no-no in classical times, but luckily director Sheila Daniels’ take on Aristophanes’ antiwar comedy flouts such prude genre segregation. Setting the salacious tale—about a coalition of Athenian and Spartan women who unite in a sex strike against their warrior husbands to end the Peloponnesian War—as a play within a play, performed by soldiers for fellow soldiers at a U.S. camp in Afghanistan, makes more urgent the heroines’ crusade to kill the war. Throughout most of the 85-minute one-act, we’re immersed in the wacky (and raunchy!) world of Harmony Arnold’s glam-gross costumes and Jennifer Zeyl’s orificial set, fully invested in the gender wars. Seldom does combat intercede, but this topical Lysistrata is a forcible reminder of bloody wars still being fought on the other side of the globe.
The conclave of women convoked by Lysistrata (intelligently played by Shontina Vernon) suggests how sensuality and personal expression are prized in the barracks: Mohawks, bare thighs and midriffs, push-ups, goosing, and butt-wagging accompany copious sex talk and innuendo. It’s no easy task to convince these lusty ladies to forego sex, as evidenced by their demonstration of beloved positions including the “she-lion and the cheese grater” (it’s in the original text). But their sexual privation pales next to that of the bellicose men, evoked by hilarious priapic contraptions ranging from tiny kettle spouts to flashlights to lengthy plastic proboscises operated like trombones. Ensconced deep like a cervix in the vulval tent hanging over the stage, a machine-like glory box flashes to songs by Pink and Destiny’s Child. In response to this teasing barrage, the horny guys pound out their frustration on electric guitars.
When warfare breaks the suspension of disbelief (conveyed by Andrew D. Smith’s flashing lights and Matt Starritt’s unnerving audio design, guided by military consultants), it really breaks it. The pure comedy is quickly forgotten, and the tenor shifts to the macabre. (Destiny’s Child’s prior refrain, “I’ve bought it” from “Independent Woman,” takes on much darker meaning.) A political chorus, rendered zombie-style at the end, seems a bit heavy-handed—is Daniels suggesting that soldiers, including those “drafted by poverty,” are zombies? Would an antiwar play like Lysistrata even be allowed on an Army base? Maybe it’s better not to approach this powerful, provocative piece too literally; just let it hit you.