Grεεk Lovε

More timely than ever, Athenian classics storm New York stages

This disturbingly resonant play about the dehumanizing consequence of vengeance is being revived twice in London this season with Clare Higgins at the Donmar Warehouse and Vanessa Redgrave with the Royal Shakespeare Company (which plans to bring its production next year to BAM). In Alex Lippard's solid effort at the Culture Project's 45 Below space, the accomplished voice teacher Kristin Linklater delivers a technically impressive performance that, when free of its occasional histrionic excesses, manages to be both moving and fearsome. (Linklater's portrayal would no doubt be better suited to a bigger stage, and Euripides' play shouldn't have to wait a year to get one.)

The National Theater of Greece has the benefit nearly every fall of City Center's impressive space, though in runs that are sadly too short to have a weighty effect. This year the company brought that most famous of all anti-war plays, Lysistrata, and once again it demonstrated that Greek theater derives its power not only from its messages but from the communal experience it both enacts and inspires. The genius of the company lies in its appreciation of the centrality of the chorus, which serves not only as the audience's surrogate but as the medium in which dance, song, and storytelling are fully synthesized. (Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's The Gospel at Colonus, which begins its two-week revival at the Apollo starting Monday, offers the best American handling of this elusive element of Greek theater.)

NTG's production begins on a traditional note, with a phallic (yes, penis) parade in full swing. The sound of military planes dropping bombs scatters the revelers, and brings forth the character of Lysistrata (the earthy Lydia Koniordou), who plans to unite the women in a nationwide effort of pacifism. Her strategy: Deny the men sexual favors until they stop their insane war. Around this immodest proposal, Aristophanes strings his bawdy high jinks.

Vengeance is mine: Kristin Linklater and Curzon Dobell in Hecuba
photo: David Gochfeld
Vengeance is mine: Kristin Linklater and Curzon Dobell in Hecuba

There's nothing earnest about this comic vision, though American productions love to pretend otherwise. Aristophanes was far too incisive a realist to let utopian fantasies cloud his sharp vision of the truth: Peace is better not because we're saints but because we'd rather be starring in our own erotic carnivals. The Greeks may not have been personally much superior to us, but they sure understood the pleasure principle at least as well as Freud.

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