by Sarah Haley
The latest season of Odyssey Theatre’s “Theatre under the Stars” brings the world premiere of Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia to Strathcona Park. Created and directed by David S. Craig, the play mixes styles and genres: combining classical theatre with present day ideas. It is a play that is both wholly familiar and, yet, something completely different. Full disclosure: owing to the influence of the weather, I had the opportunity to see parts of this production multiple times and thus I felt as though adopting a textual view would be more apt for the majority of this review with only some consideration paid to the acting given the fact that I had attended two different performance dates.
Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia takes its inspiration from the Grecian Comedy Lysistrata– composed by the “Father of Western Comedy” himself, Aristophanes. In one of his most recognized plays, the original text (first translated into English in 1872) tells the story of the Peloponnesian war and the Grecian women’s quest to end it. Their solution? To take a vow of celibacy until their husbands stop fighting each other. Historically, this is one of the first extent dramatic texts that attempts to deal with gender-based issues and this is perhaps the reason why the text (and its many adaptations) still finds relevance in 2018. While it holds to the general narrative of Aristophanes’ original play, Craig’s Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia launches itself into the future and places its characters in conflict with Gaia, the Greek incarnation of Mother Earth. A timely and topical piece, Craig emphasizes the clear message for present day action, but it falls short of its creative intentions.
The fight for the preservation of the Earth and the appeal to environmental protection is an apt theme for an outdoor performance. Amid the cancellations due to heavy rains, thunderstorms, and extreme heat, this play seems to carry more weight in face of the real life conditions of its staging. In a world where Gaia creates massive storms and natural disasters as a warning to protect the earth, the message is eerily resonant.
The story itself, however, tends to drag on. There are several storylines within the play that constantly fight for dominance. With Lysistrata’s need for a child, her husband Cleon’s proclivity to tyranny, and Gaia’s threats to destroy earth, a large portion of the performance is dedicated to exposition. With the unbalanced expositional arc, the conclusion feels forced and cheap, an obvious cop out of an overly complex script. Indeed, it is the complexity of the narrative that proves itself as a hindrance to an otherwise well-constructed and poignant play.
With Odyssey Theatre’s mandate to work with masks and movements, Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia marks a significant deviation from past productions. With the exception of the otherworldly Gaia and her minions, the only masks used in the production are the small wired air filters that wrap around the face. While this deviation makes thematic sense, it is indicative of the mash up of aesthetic choices and styles that convolute the story.
The production blends together a variety of styles including commedia dell’arte, farce, and mime; however, there is very little continuity between the styles throughout the production. Likewise, the insertion of musical numbers do not flow within the piece as a whole: they are too apparent to be one-off gags or oddities, and not apparent enough to be considered a plot or character mechanism as in traditional musical theatre. It is the constant pastiche of genre, themes, aesthetic choices that render this play convoluted. Each act begins with pantomime musical number performed by the slaves G and H (David Warburton and Catriona Leger, respectively). As the slaves, Warburton and Leger maintain their pantomime-esque physicality throughout their performances but this style is not taken up by any other character with the exclusion of the concluding musical number. The remainder of the cast portray their characters through physical comedy and farce complete with small musical and dance interludes and rap battles. While each style has its merits, and even the combination may have merits, it is the uncurated inclusion here that adds to the convoluted nature of the play. However, amongst the imitation and blended genres, the actors grace the stage with ease picking up on the complexities of this play and easily shifting between styles.
Jerrard Smith’s set design also seems like an unnecessary addition, at first blush. In a park surrounded by lush green foliage and imitation Grecian ruins, it feels almost superfluous to have a set complete with Grecian ruins and a backdrop of painted foliage and fake flowers. On the other hand, this imitation encapsulates the themes of the play. It is an imitation of the world, of nature. The set ignores the nature around it and creates replicas just like the future world of Lysistrata.
While Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia can feel overburdened by its creative ideals, it is an entertaining play that strikes a fine balance between comedy and social awareness. Weather (and Gaia’s calls to action) permitting, Odyssey Theatre remains a fine choice of entertainment on these warm summer nights. Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia runs Tuesday to Sunday evenings at Strathcona Park, with ‘Pay What You Can’ tickets on Sunday matinees.
Sarah Haley is a student at Carleton University. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with concentrations in Medieval Studies and Theatre.