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Lys and dick
Brustein leaves ’em laughing

By Aristophanes. Adapted by Robert Brustein and the ART company. Music by Galt MacDermot. Lyrics by Matty Selman. Directed by Andrei Serban. Set by Michael H. Yeargan. Costumes by Marina Draghici. Lighting by John Ambrosone. Sound by David Remedios. Music direction by Michael Friedman. With Cherry Jones, Karen MacDonald, Chelsey Rives, Hannah Bos, Stephanie Roth-Haberle, Amber Allison, Paula Plum, Thomas Derrah, Alvin Epstein, Jeremy Geidt, Remo Airaldi, Will LeBow, and Benjamin Evett. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center through June 9.

Bob bids farewell

It was hard not to feel the momentousness as impresario Brustein, however low-key his remarks, took the stage before Lysistrata to deliver his last opening-night welcome as ART artistic director. It has been a long and (for all of us) significant ride, from which Mr. " No More Masterpieces " exits on a phallic-banana peel. Brustein is stepping down as artistic director, to be replaced by a triumvirate of executive director Robert Orchard, artistic director Robert Woodruff, and associate artistic director Gideon Lester. Woodruff would appear to have been hand-picked by his predecessor, however, and Brustein himself will return to the ART after a year’s sabbatical. All the same, he is leaving his official post, and it seems fitting that the multidextrous practitioner who has defined the ART æsthetic do so as part of a team carrying out his own stated mission to " reinvent the classics. "

Brustein, a nationally known pundit recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame, has also played his part in reinventing Boston theater. When he and his fellow Yale refugees arrived, we were a limping tryout town distinguished by some excellent fringe theaters doing experimental work for limited audiences and the memory of David Wheeler’s fabled Theatre Company of Boston. Suddenly there was indigenous professional theater, sometimes thrilling, sometimes controversial, something to be excited by. The Huntington Theatre Company, also with a university connection, followed two years later, and now we look out on a rialto dotted with midsize professional theaters.

Among Brustein’s distinctive contributions have been his own reinvention of the classics about which he is most passionate, including the plays of Ibsen and Pirandello, and the injection of striking European influences into his American repertory company. From 1985 to 1991, the ART was stateside home to Texas-bred but European-funded Robert Wilson. This won Cambridge the American premiere of the visionary Cologne section of the epic the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down and the world premiere of Wilson’s hauntingly beautiful Alcestis, his first work built (at Brustein’s behest) on a classic text. Brustein also brought to Cambridge the Brazilian-bred, British-honed Ron Daniels as associate artistic director for five years, during which time Daniels directed intelligent, visually memorable productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov.

Among Europeans invited to direct at the ART, foremost is the Romanian-born Serban, whose 10 productions for the company include not only The King Stag but also a Three Sisters that made exquisitely palpable the passage of time for folks standing still. And under Brustein’s tutelage, Andrei Belrader, David Leveaux, Dario Fo, François Rochaix, and János Szász, among others, brought their talents to the ART.

Brustein is nationally noted for his nose for new plays, though most of those given their debuts by the ART have sported an American label. On the founding artistic director’s watch, the ART has presented the world premieres of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer-winning ’night, Mother, three operas by Philip Glass, and four plays by Newton resident David Mamet, as well as significant new works by Jules Feiffer, Don DeLillo, Suzan-Lori Parks, Naomi Wallace, Paula Vogel, and David Rabe.

In his company’s 20th-anniversary-celebratory tome The Lively ART, Brustein is asked what, sitting around Martha’s Vineyard in his retirement (and presumably eavesdropping), he would like to hear someone say the American Repertory Theatre had done for American theater? His response: " The American Repertory Theatre, along with other theaters of its kind, demonstrated that theater exists not just for entertainment but for revelation, enlightenment, and the nourishment of the soul. It helped to show that theater includes entertainment but has a purpose that doesn’t fade when the curtain goes down, and that it is as important an art form as literature or painting or serious music or dance. The American Repertory Theatre helped to restore respect for the art of theater. " Mission on track.

— CC

" No sex, please, we’re Greek " is the theme of Aristophanes’s famous anti-war comedy Lysistrata, which was first performed in 411 BC and is currently being given a game, if hardly classical, go by the American Repertory Theatre. Written in the 21st year of the Peloponnesian War, the play is a bawdy fantasy in which the women of Greece, led by the title character, unite in a sex strike that brings their warring men to their knees in agonized, much-remarked-upon tumescence and leaves them ready to sign a treaty.

At the ART, the play’s formal structure, in particular its twin choruses of old men and old women, has been jettisoned in Robert Brustein’s freewheeling Borscht Belt adaptation. And director Andrei Serban throws everything at the hoary comedy but the Attic sink to create a sincerely anti-war, no-holds-barred, seldom completely indelicate burlesque that at its best is surprisingly charming. This is due, in part, to the efforts of an ART company that, whether dolled up like something off an urn or sporting muscle suits and colored-balloon phalluses, is having fun and likes to share.

Lyisistrata marks the end of Brustein’s 22-year tenure as artistic director of the company he founded at Harvard in 1980, following 14 years (with many of the same collaborators) at the helm of the Yale Repertory Theatre. It’s an odd swan song that has been preceded by some dissonance. The production marks the reunion of several well-regarded ART alumni including the always inventive Serban, Tony-winning actress Cherry Jones, and set designer Michael H. Yeargan, whose past efforts for the ART include its two " signature " productions, The King Stag and Six Characters in Search of an Author. The team was to have included adapter Larry Gelbart — who is well known for the Plautus-derived A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and whose Mastergate premiered at ART — and composer Alan Menken. When artistic differences parted Gelbart and the ART, Brustein had to step in and take over the adaptation himself. And Hair composer Galt MacDermot, abetted by lyricist Matty Selman, had to come up with a score — a few catchy numbers, really, and a lot of rhythmic talk-sing — in no time flat. No one would have wished Brustein a crisis on his way out the door. But what happened in the preparation of Lysistrata is proof that, if need be, he can step into the breach and rally the troops.

Lysistrata is brimful of phallic humor that’s difficult to drag across the ages. And oh, those worrisome choruses of geezers and crones. Here they’re reduced to four black-clad coots more Jewish-vaudevillean than Greek and a single widow in league with Lysistrata and her band of younger women, who take over the Acropolis with legs firmly crossed. On the other hand, Lysistrata, who rallies the women to " give up Mr. Willy, " doubtless seems more heroic to us than she did to the Athenian men of the fifth century BC. Serban says of Cherry Jones’s portrayal, " She makes me think of Joan of Arc or Mother Courage, with a touch of Mae West’s wink. " Indeed, Jones, though her singing is less accomplished than Karen MacDonald’s or Thomas Derrah’s, is a boon to the production, radiating a natural dignity that cuts against the crude grain of, say, conversing with the penis of another woman’s husband. She can also turn on a dime from goofily draining a wine bowl or demonstrating the " provocative motions " that along with " lotions and potions " are tools of the girls’ trade to impassioned sincerity when deriding the war.

Still, the codgers’ quartet of Derrah, Alvin Epstein, Jeremy Geidt, and Remo Airaldi (who make their first entrance lugging a limp pink log that is just the first phallus of the evening) shuffle away with the show, cutting their decrepitude with sinister stylishness on such numbers as " It’s a Man’s World " and " Deus Ex. " Will LeBow, dour in a red-haystack haircut and sandals, gives new meaning to the word blowhard, denouncing " female profligacy " while operating his balloon on a wire. But Brustein’s adaptation dwells on Lysistrata and her cadre of women, the standouts among whom are Stephanie Roth-Haberle, hilariously over-the-top as a bizarrely accented, mini-skirted, muscle-suited woman from Sparta, and MacDonald as Lysistrata’s comic sidekick.

As for the hastily constructed script (which is co-credited to the company), it starts painfully but improves, generally succeeding better with puns and double entendres than with out-and-out vulgarity. Selman’s lyrics can be so lame they’re funny, the women vowing, for example, that " though it may sound iffy/I’ll deny that little stiffy. " MacDermot, who has ventured into hip-hop of late, puts rhythm to continual use, with a four-piece combo accompanying all the syncopated rallying and lusting. The composer supplies a nice bluesy number (it’s delivered cabaret-style by Jones alone in a chair) and an infectious ditty called " Goddess Wheel. " The latter is reprised at the finale as, sex and peace having been restored, albeit at a discomforting whisper that gives the lie to the play’s happy-humping ending, a bouncy cast looses into the house snaky balloons that, after this show, do not suggest a children’s birthday party.

Issue Date: May 23-30, 2002
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