Chicago Theater Review: LYSISTRATA JONES (Refuge Theatre Project at Unity Lutheran Church)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 23, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Maybe—dammit!—we get the comedy we deserve, cut to fit and ready to wear. Take Lysistrata Jones (please). Aristophanes’ most famous satire, Lysistrata, imagined a sex strike in Athens fifth century BC: Tired of over a decade of inconclusive warfare between that city-state and the warriors of Sparta, the soldiers’ wives and sweethearts declare a moratorium on nookie. Pursuing whatever it takes to end not win the war in the absence of voting power, they employ domestic persuasion (on both sides) to make the forces of life, lust and love overcome the male drive for death. Abstinence will end the Peloponnesian War!

Flash to the twenty-first century AD, specifically a 2011 musical comedy with book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn that played Broadway for a month. Trivializing to suit the times and dumbing down to find a lucrative common denominator, Lysistrata Jones changes Aristophanes’ game completely.

No longer a pacifist protest, this glee-full, pleasing two-act, a 130-minute confection (originally cutely called Give It Up!), celebrates sisterly solidarity of the silliest sort: To finally put an end to 20 years of defeat on the basketball court (1983-2013!), the title cheerleader persuades her pep-squad comrades at Athens University to withhold all hanky-panky until the guys finally win a game. Can the absurdly named “Spartans” finally defeat “the boys from Syracuse” (nudge, nod) and, as the rollicking romp puts it, finally “change the word”?

Both sides in this sexual showdown (“I Don’t Think So”) seek professional advice from a local bordello: The girls discover that being yourself is sexier than strutting your assets (“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover”) and the boys that, their hormones notwithstanding, they really and truly want love more than sex (“Writing on the Wall”). When the Spartans finally break their losing streak, they’ve learned a lot more than how to sink a free throw from across the court.

Now performed, like the second (off-Broadway) production, in an Edgewater (church) gymnasium, Justin Brill’s engaging staging is a frenetically charming Chicago premiere. It rocks with the immediacy of sexually suggestive rousers like “Hold On,” “Lay Low,” and “You Go Your Way,” driven home by a young, game and very attractive 16-member cast.

As the pom-pom princess, Mary-Margaret Roberts tears the stuffing out of L.J.’s affecting first-act finale “Where Am I Now?” As a campus radical, Kaleb Van Rijswijck does full justice to the non-jocks. Colin Sanderson’s popular stud Mick falls endearingly in love with Maisie Rose’s unlikely librarian Robin in the heartfelt “When She Smiles.” Gina Francesca has presence as Hetaira, the madame who passes as her own Greek chorus.

Like Disney’s High School Musical series, it’s a generic jump for joy. If energy was enough and Aristophanes not part of the picture, it would be entertainment enough, with strong songs and persuasive performances from well-cast college and “valley girl” (stereo)types. Shanna Vanderwerker’s choreography could give Glee a run for its money and, despite this gym’s lousy acoustics, bad sight lines and inadequate miking, Annabelle Revak’s music direction gives Flinn’s delightful dozen the pop fun and hip hop happiness they deserve.

But, rotten apples to Aristophanes’ lasting orangesLysistrata Jones succumbs to a very false analogy. The ancient sex strikers wanted the men to give up fighting, not do it better. If this well-intentioned update were true to its source, Jones’ perky crew would be trying to get the boys to abandon basketball, not losing. Alas, that won’t wash with an American audience, so we get Beane and Flinn’s moral disconnect.

Anyway Lysistrata Jones isn’t that believable on its own psychosexual terms. It’s not as if the athletes of Athens U, typical frat straights (with one demographic exception), just need motivation from their maidens. They don’t choose to lose, not the way Pericles’ footsoldiers chose to kill Sparta’s hoplites. They just can’t make their hoop dreams come true. Sports can suck.

Such a wasted opportunity: Given the military-industrial complex’s perpetual appetite for war, it’s not as if pointless combat is not on the American menu. Basketball is certainly competitive (though nothing like football) but it’s no metaphor for war. If only this all-American and true-to-youth musical were just called Jones, much would be okey-dokey. Why did they have to drag in Lysistrata?

photos by Zeke Dolezalek

Lysistrata Jones
Refuge Theatre Project
Unity Lutheran Church Gymnasium, 1212 W. Balmoral Avenue
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 6; Sat Nov. 18 at 4
ends on November 19, 2017
for tickets, visit Refuge Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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