It's one thing when an army's supply lines are cut off. When any hope for a sex life is cut off, well, that's something else again, and the women of ancient Greece figured that's just what would disabuse their men of notions of going to war. At least that's what Aristophanes hypothesized when he wrote "Lysistrata," a comedy about the woman who may have been the first to coin the phrase, "Make love, not war"--with the addendum, "If you want the latter, forget the former."
Nobody can keep a war of sexual attrition going for long, however, as she sadly found out, but the proposition still has its allure, and Ben Donenberg, one of the directors of Al's National Theatre (located next to Al's Bar downtown), has reconceived the play (after a translation by former USC classics professor Matt Neuberg) and retitled it "Lysistrotsky (or Who's on Top?)" and opens it today.
Donenberg, 29, is a Juilliard Theatre Center grad and a current USC philosophy major who wrote, directed and produced "Starship Shakespeare" at the Powerhouse in April and is currently producing and directing the "Shakespeare in the Square" series that takes place weekends at Pershing Square.
"I find a strong relationship between philosophy and theater, particularly since they started in Greece at the same time," he said. "When I was in therapy in New York, my therapist said, 'The problem about being an actor is that you have to wait around for other people to put words in your mouth.' I realized that I was going to see him more to talk philosophy than psychological problems (I found out he had been a philosophy teacher).
"I took Dr. Neuberg's translation and worked on it at the American Theatre Arts, where I teach. I wanted to contemporize it. Instead of men wearing phalluses, we have them wearing nuclear missile symbols. Instead of male-female fights, we have tag-team matches. And the play makes of Russia and America what it once made of Athens and Sparta. A lot of people think this is a play about women's rights. I think it says that women suffer from the absence of men as much as men do women. This version is more of a celebration of sexuality than politics."
There's no telling how much it helps a playwright to know that a professional and resourceful theater will stick with him (or her) through thick and thin. Keith Reddin and the South Coast Repertory have thrown in together with "Life and Limb" and "Rum and Coke," plays that have gone on to enjoy runs elsewhere. Reddin is back Tuesday with yet another new work, "The Highest Standard of Living."
SCR has adopted a policy of not discussing originals in any detail before their unveiling, in an effort to head off any critical preconceptions. "Highest Standard" is about an American man who studies Russian, goes to Russia, then returns to find some parallels with life at home, and that's all anybody's saying about that--for now.
"Keith's plays are very imaginative, kinetic works with an off-center slant," said David Emmes, who directs. "This one deals with government and personal paranoia. Its satiric invention and its concerns are very close to our concerns. Keith's background as an actor leads him to understand the theatrical situation, and how to make the dramatic moment work.
"There are 20 characters in this play, which is large for a new work, or for a new work by Keith, anyway. But I think that's one of the advantages of knowing he has a place like this to work in. Unlike so many writers who have to worry about being produced, he isn't restricted to a two-actor, one-set play. Some things have gotten easier over the years at SCR because we've built a staff. The hard part, and the thing that keeps this theater vital, is our commitment to the work."
To this day, nobody--including its creators--quite knows what a Duck's Breath is supposed to represent in the worldly scheme of things (maybe the whole idea is very Zen), but the Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre has for a number of years now not only kept a satirical ear to the ground, but has managed to bring us some richly self-contained characters and ideas, such as "Doctor Science" and the bilious, acid-tongued social critic Ian Shoales, to whom rock 'n' roll is as apt a metaphor for world affairs as anything.
"Doctor Science" (Dan Coffey) has a book out and an upcoming TV special on public television. Shoales (Merle Kessler) has been a regular on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and has appeared on "Nightline" when Ted Koppel is looking for more answers than he's already heard (Shoales also has a tape cassette and a book out, the latter of which has sold well enough to earn Kessler a publisher's invitation to do another).
Kessler is in town to work on the upcoming Jay Leno special on NBC-TV, and the group is with him to do one of its last live appearances Friday night at At My Place in Santa Monica before it goes on sabbatical in order to make a movie.
"We don't do impressions or follow the headlines too closely," Kessler said. "Instead we try to create self-contained little worlds or situations set up by a host. This time Leon Martel's Rowdy Gaines, a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Gene Autry, will entertain the audience during a hostile corporate takeover. We'll have our live dog act and our theater parody, in addition to Congo Bob, African mercenary-turned-stand-up comic; Deal Blisterproof, a Paul Harvey-type editorial commentator, who pushes his own vitamins; and 'Captain Kangaroo's' Bunny Rabbit, a show-biz bunny who's bitter abut how his career has gone. I guess we're doing 75% new material. The theme we seem to be settling on right now is how everyone is a huckster."
Lest the curse of the Duck's Breath (which is said to be redolent of the smell of minnows) befall the writer of this column, let it be added that Bill Allard rounds out the quartet.