Bard Fest: Women give men a (very) hard time in ‘Lysistrata’

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.

By Wendy Carson

With the Indy Bard Fest production of “Lysistrata,” Holly Hathaway-Thompson has done an amazing job of updating Aristophanes’ story of women’s empowerment. She not only made the storyline more accessible to a modern audience, but also shows the true meaning behind its purpose: Women have the power to change everything if they just stand together in their resolve.

The story begins in the not-too-distant future with a young girl (Missy Waaland) approaching her grandmother (Miki Mathioudakis) for more information about the election of 2022. Grandmother is horrified to learn that only a sentence or two about this time exists online and one of those is on bleach vaccines. She then begins the story, “There was this woman …”

We are transported to an alternate reality of Greece in which Lysistrata (Carrie Reiberg) has called together all of the women of the various tribes to set about her plans for P-E-A-C-E (the spelling of this word is vital throughout). Though many of the representatives have disputes among themselves, they all agree that they are sick and tired of their men being away at war all the time. Lysistrata puts forth her simple plan: They will all withhold any romantic or sexual favors until the men agree to give them a Peace.

Surprisingly for some, this is almost as difficult for the women to uphold as it is for the men to endure. Therefore, the women take over the capital for themselves alone until their demands have been met. The men do not take kindly to this tactic and try everything to persuade the women from their resolve. However, even the most bull-headed of them men finally give in to their basest needs and agree that they will meet the demands of peace, healthcare, education, living wages, etc. This brings about the blissfully benevolent future of our Grandmother and Grandchild – a future where men do not control women’s bodies or destinies.

With the source material being a comedy, Hathaway-Thompson has given the cast some truly hilarious lines throughout. Her amazing cast manage to squeeze every possible drop of laughter from each one.

Reiburg brings a slyness to Lysistrata you don’t always see in this role. This was a woman who literally brought a nation to peace with a very simple plan. Mathioudakis is brilliant in her dual roles as Grandmother and Colonice (Lysistrata’s closest ally), bringing the wisdom and experience of both characters. Waaland’s turn as the Grandchild and Ismenia allows us to see the counterpoint naivete of her youth.

Tracy Nakigozi portrays Andromeda as a wary but proud woman who puts aside personal conflicts for the good of the whole. Lucy Fields as Lampito is a comic delight as she bemoans the travails of this lack of intimacy upon herself as well as the men. Scott Fleshood (Xander), shows another side of this longing as the lone representative of those who also love men even though being born with a Y chromosome. Samantha Kelly (Medora) and Nikki Lynch (Cassandra) both do a great job of helping to keep the men in their place.

Jessica Crum Hawkins (Myrrhine) plays one half of a married couple that, despite their love and desire for each other, are still at odds on the matter. Matthew Socey (her  husband, Cinesias) brings comic timing to a new level as he is continually and painfully denied the fulfillment of his desires.

Also at loggerheads are the Leader of the Women (MaryAnne Mathews), Leader of the Men (Robert Webster), and the Magistrate (Eric Bryant) each of them chewing up the scenery as if it were their final meal.

Speaking of the men, being that the story surrounds the baseness of themselves, they are mainly comic relief. However, each brilliantly shows their ability to handle these barbs – especially Jurrell Spencer as the Herald who has apparently “cut a hole in the box.”

I was saddened to discover that most of the audience had never head of the story, but proud of their reception to it afterwards. I do adore this play. It has an important message and it needs to be heard throughout our country and the world.

You have your chance this Friday through Sunday, Oct. 14-16, at The Cat theatre, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel.

What a ‘Dream’!

By John Lyle Belden

There is a land of centuries-old mysteries, equal parts pagan celebration and reverent tradition working in unique harmony, where in shadowy woods the very air is sodden with magick – Louisiana.

It is in the bayou town of Athens that we find the familiar yet always fresh William Shakespeare rom-com “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presented by Bard Fest with Arts for Lawrence in the park amphitheater behind Theater at the Fort, a production called “Shakespeare at the Fort.”

As appropriate to a free public “in the park” Shakespeare play, this “Dream,” directed by Matthew Socey, is highly entertaining regardless of if you’ve practically memorized it, or you slept through high school Lit and have only heard the title in conversation. Wendy said to me afterward that this is not only one of the best “Midsummers” she has seen, but easiest version to follow.

For those who need it, here’s the silly and overall simple plot (Cajun version): The most respected man in the Parish, Duke Theseus (Jo Bennett) and his lovely amazon, Hippolyta (Afton Shepard) are to be married, but they are first asked to settle the engagement of Demetrius (Matthew Walls) to Hermia (Maggie Lengerich) at the insistence of her mama Egeus (Sarah Froehlke) because Hermia wants to marry Lysandra (Kristie Shuh). Fair Helena (Evangeline Bouw) wishes to wed Demetrius, who is repulsed by her playing so easy-to-get. The Duke puts it all off to the wedding celebration day, and everyone agrees to disagree.

Most of the action occurs out in the spooky forest outside town.

Is that a Tulane track star at home for summer break that we see? Naw, it’s Robin Goodfellow (Diane Tsao)! One of the bayou faerie folk, that trickster Puck only answers to the local voodoo king, Oberon (Bennett), who is having some words with his queen Titania (Shepard) over the custody of a little Indian girl becoming their half-fae Changeling (Beatrice Hartz). To aid in childcare are Titania’s faeries Cobweb (Jamie Devine), Moth (Samantha Kelly), and Mustardseed (Monica Hartz).

Then, trompin’ around these woods are common folk of the Mechanical trades who wish to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding, rehearsing in secret. Exceedingly patient director Petra Quill (Chynna Fry) is staging the old favorite “Pyramus and Thisbee” starring Flute (Justina Savage) as Thisbee, Starveling (Emily Hauer) as Moonshine, Snout (Beverly Roche) as Wall, Snug (Froehlke) as a Gator, and the colorful Bottom (Kelsey VanVoorst) as Pyramus. But then, stuff happens.

A lot of stuff happens – go see the play!

The vicinity of New Orleans is a perfect setting, and not just to try out some passable Southern accents. The environment is embraced in the music used, costuming, and just the otherworldly air of the whole show. More people have watched “True Blood” and other bayou-set stories than have visited Greece, so engaging the audience is easy. The change in what kind of beast chases Thisbee works perfectly and adds to the comedy. (Fear the Chomp!) It all contributes to a flavorful comic gumbo that goes down easy.

And finally, we have a place where the Elizabethan habit of English people always saying “adieu” makes sense.

The stage would be a bit small for most serious productions, but the intimate nature of it and the surrounding lawn allows for an immersive and interactive experience. Entrances and exits are literally from and to anywhere, fairies dance with kids in the audience, and in an ingenious move, the nobles viewing the Mechanicals’ play are seated in the exact center of the audience. Rather than divide our attention at one end of the stage, they are out of the corners of our eyes, allowing us to enjoy the unintentional hilarity of the play-within-the-play on the stage, while they comment and quip like posh robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The cross-gender casting, which has become more common across all stages in recent years, feels more natural here, and non-hetero feelings add to the stress of our four mortal lovers. In a great mockery of Shakespeare-era plays having boys play women, Savage shines as (pardon if I’m wrong on personal gender) a female actor playing a man who resents having to play a woman. Fry’s Petra aside, the other Mechanicals portray rough men in a gentle art (adding to comic potential).

The double-casting of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta is good as it always is in bringing a unity to the overall play, but largely stopping there avoids audience confusion. (Since we never see them in the same room, perhaps they are secretly the same entities? Voodoo works in mysterious ways.)

The whole cast, top to Bottom, are exceptional – which is praise I often heap on every one of these actors individually in practically everything they do. And to that I’ll add Guy Grubbs as Theseus’ servant Philostrate, whose every entry is a punchline.

The above aside, I’ll toss my text roses at the wonderful surprise that is 7-year-old Beatrice Hartz. Anyone who saw the advance photos of Shepard holding the Changeling as just promotional can be forgiven (if I can be) for thinking her just a dancing prop in the play. With the assurance of her mother in the cast (and her father and a best friend in the front row opening night), she flits her way into and out of her every scene and cue like a pro. Her confidence radiates, and feeds into her character as the fellow fae play along. In this world, she will be become a power to rival her sitters, so it adds meaning as she literally calls their dances at one point, and when she places her hand before a character in a “halt” gesture (which is obeyed) we almost feel the invisible door close. She even gets to speak a line.

Classic with a twist? A drug-induced fever-dream by Tennessee Williams? However you think of it, the price is right – free, but please “buy” $0 tickets online for headcount. While the content is family friendly and the site is easy to reach, do note a few things. The weather is Louisiana-like with high heat and humidity, so shading, sunscreen, and hydration are advised as the play starts before sundown. A couple of food trucks are nearby, and picnics are OK. Bring your own lawn chairs, or sit on a blanket. And in these intimate confines the company goes old-school with no microphones on actors. Fortunately, most lines seem to be uttered in an excited state, but a little audience noise discipline, extending to the nearby swings, would be appreciated.

Performances are just this one weekend: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22; Saturday, July 23; and Sunday, July 24; at the small park behind Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (far north end of Indy’s Post Road). Tickets and info at indybardfest.com and artsforlawrence.org.