Sunday, June 17, 2012

Something’s Up In Washington: The Bard’s Town Theatre Presents Misses Strata

L to R - Cara McHugh, Jennifer Levine, Any Steiger, Beth
Burrell and April Singer in Misses Strata. Photo by Doug Schutte.
Misses Strata

Written by Doug Schutte
Directed by Scot Atkinson

Reviewed by Emily Pike

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Emily Pike.  All rights reserved.

Two months ago, I changed career paths and moved back home to Louisville after nearly eight years in New York City. There are many reasons I am thrilled to be back home, but one of the things I was sure I would miss about New York was the large volume of high-quality, small-venue, independent theatrical work. But after seeing Misses Strata – my second very positive experience at The Bard’s Town – I’ve come to believe that either I’ve gotten lucky in the plays I’ve seen so far, or Louisville’s theatre scene has enough quality work going on that I won’t miss NYC’s as much as I thought.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Greek comedy Lysistrata, on which Misses Strata is based, it was written by Aristophanes in 411 BC in Athens. Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to undertake a solemn vow with her to withhold all sexual privileges from husbands and lovers until the male leaders of government form a peace agreement to end the interminable Peloponnesian War.  A group of men attempts to burn them out of the Acropolis, which they have overtaken, but the women are able to put out the fire. Following a series of similar men-versus-women interactions, they are finally able to persuade the men into reaching a peace agreement. The play ends with dancing, merriment, and a feast in the Acropolis.

In Misses Strata, playwright Doug Schutte has tailored Aristophanes’ comedy to fit the modern era. The women of America are fed up with their politician husbands and gridlock in Washington. At the top of the play, ancient protagonist Lysistrata (Amy Steiger) can’t believe that she is still needed in 2012 A.D. to address the same issues she thought had been resolved over 2,500 years ago. But other characters readily observe that, despite women’s progress over the last century, the American power structure is still an old boys’ club. So, led by the newly-dubbed Misses Strata, the women undertake a sacred vow (over what appears to be a massive jug of Carlo Rossi) to close their legs until men can open their minds and start getting America back on track.

Playwright Schutte, director Scot Atkinson and the ensemble have done an excellent job in this production of drawing broad and hilarious caricatures of some major players from both sides of the aisle. Character Dick (Ryan Watson) lurks from entrance to exit in a hunting cap with rifle in hand like a perverse and cantankerous Elmer Fudd, ready to shoot anything that even reminds of him of the word “terrorist.” A predictably pant-suited Hillary (Jennifer Levine) shuffles seriously from one part of the stage to another, lacking the feminine “daintiness” required to comfortably walk in her own heels. Two brief appearances of the barely verbal Mitch (also Watson) have him carrying bags of cash and counting dollar bills while saying the only two phrases he knows – “money” and “free speech.”

The point-of-view the production takes is that today’s political inaction is everyone’s fault, and this position is supported from start to finish with plenty of equal-opportunity laughs. For example, when Senators Mitch and Boehner (J. P. Lebangood) attempt to burn the rebellious women out of the capitol building with flaming bags of tax money, one woman exclaims: “You wouldn’t expect Republicans to burn money; it’s all they care about! Democrats, I can understand…they burn through cash like its kindling!”

Schutte has also managed to incorporate some unexpected and relatable human qualities into characters whom another playwright might have treated more harshly. The result is a political commentary-versus-comedy dynamic that leans generously toward the side of comedy, letting the audience fully enjoy every joke and laugh without reserve. There is much horseplay and no self-aware discomfort; the show is sarcastic without being sardonic. For instance, in a different style of satire, our most recent former president might have been singled out for condemnation for his role in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or the national debt. But here, he is depicted as the downright likable Georgie Boy (also Lebangood), a well-meaning dunce who, in his “lightly used” Air National Guard uniform, is reminiscent of lovable doofus Gomer Pyle from The Andy Griffith Show. The sweetness we encounter in interactions between him and wife Laura (Beth Burrell), even after he learns that she is a leader of the women’s cause, is adorable – as is her evident affection for him and concern for the well-being of their relationship. It is choices like this that make Miss Strata so easily enjoyable.

And, I have to say, I was mightily impressed by the sheer number of sexual innuendos the playwright was able to conjure up for two full hours of nonstop allusions, references, puns and wordplay. From Dick to Boehner to Bush to President Willie, Schutte certainly managed to mine the landscape of unfortunate American political names for all it was worth. This is not a play for anyone uncomfortable with bawdy humor.

The one true criticism I have is that the songs dragged. In a throwback to the chorus sections of the original Greek Lysistrata, Schutte has included a handful of songs set to familiar patriotic tunes and sung by various characters or groups of characters throughout the play. It appears that most of the actors are not singers, but that did not bother me when they remained committed to their lyrics and characters rather than trying to focus on singing well. The real problem was one of tempo. The musical numbers would have worked much better if some faster recordings could have been used. The closing number would especially benefit from the company being able to move through the lyrics at a quicker, more natural pace.

Overall, however, the cast and crew can be proud of a fine and funny show. I would easily recommend Misses Strata to anyone old enough to watch an R-rated movie.

Misses Strata

June 14, 15, 16, 17*, 20*, 21*, 22, 23. All performances at 7:30 p.m. (*Denotes value performances, with discounted seats available). Tickets $15 cash, $16 credit, and only $10 ($11 credit) for all value performances.

The Bard’s Town Theatre
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205

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