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BACKSTAGE 'LIZ ISTRATA' : A Battle of Sexes : A rock 'n' roll update of an Aristophanes classic shows men and women fighting it out over war and peace.

May 23, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What happens when the glory that was ancient Greece collides head-on with the glitter that is MTV? The UC Santa Barbara department of dramatic arts will seek the answer tonight with the opening of an ambitious adaptation of "Lysistrata," restaged as a futuristic rock musical.

In Aristophanes' classic satire, a plucky band of Athenian women, led by Lysistrata, withhold sexual attentions to frustrate their men into stopping their perpetual warfare. The UCSB version sets a similar strike in 2045, led by members of an all-woman "hyperrock" band. Seizing an impregnable military bunker with a link to worldwide network television, lead singer Liz Istrata calls on peace-loving people to stop having sex until the ongoing Oil Wars have ended.

At a rehearsal two weeks ago, the play's diverse elements of social commentary, anti-war movements, rock 'n' roll and uninhibited eroticism were beginning to coalesce as Val Limar, who plays Liz, belted out her "Battle Hymn of Love." A blues number with moves so provocative they make Tina Turner look safe for the convent circuit, it's a song in keeping with the bawdy spirit of Aristophanes' original play.

Even out of costume, Limar who suspended her career as a singer-actress to pursue graduate studies at UCSB, was a formidable presence as her character took on the prevailing power structure with raw sensuality.

Playwright Ellen Anderson, a Santa Barbara resident who wrote the adaptation, was unabashed about her goals: "I want to get people hot and, in the process, make them hot for theater. For a lot of the audience--including the students taking 'Intro to Drama' to fulfill their humanities course requirements--this is one of their first experiences with plays, and I want them to leave the theater with a desire for more."

Continuing her involvement through the opening, Anderson surveyed the rehearsal with pen and script in hand, ready to make alterations and improvements. "It's kind of like runny eggs right now," she said of the production, "but it's coming together very well. Especially considering the number of contributors."

Anderson began the adaptation last year at the invitation of Peter Lackner, UCSB's recently hired director of theater. Lackner's fiercely heady stagings of "Faust" and the English-language premiere of German Expressionist Ernst Barlach's "The Flood" last year helped establish a new spirit of innovation, as well as controversy, in UCSB productions.

Lackner wanted to direct an original script of "Lysistrata," updated to reflect the current political climate. His decision to stage an anti-war play was based, he said, "on an uncomfortable hunch that, given our total economic and political dependence on creating and justifying new military conflicts, peace simply couldn't last long."

Lackner selected Anderson to script the adaptation after seeing two of her plays successfully produced at UCSB. One, "Three Tits," was later performed at the Source Theater in Washington, where it won the Washington, D.C., Theatre Festival best new play award for 1989.

Other participants in the venture include Michael Mortilla, who provided original music, and UCSB drama Prof. Robert Potter, who contributed most of the lyrics, with help from Anderson and Limar. Lesley Finlayson's outrageous costumes and Patricia Frank's futuristic set provide the visual flash that Lackner promises will make this "one of the most elaborate productions the UCSB stage has ever seen."

Still, entertainment is only part of Lackner's goal: He wants the play's social commentary to come across as well. "We're making a serious statement about believing in peace and criticizing the mechanisms of military thought," he said, "and I think humor is the best way to cast light upon those mechanisms. If you magnify the absurd humor of reality, you've got something that's funny and truthful at the same time."

Mixing Lackner's rigorous intellectual discipline and Anderson's free-associative style made for a challenging dynamic. "I'm not a verbal person," Anderson claimed, "even though I write plays. I'm subconscious-- often unconscious. I float around in the unconscious with a couple of quarters in my pocket in case I need to phone in a truth."

The deeper Anderson dug into Aristophanes' play, she said, the more she became convinced that the anti-war theme was its most relevant issue, even more important than the rivalry between men and women. For this reason, she adjusted the script to downplay the sexual division, incorporating male characters who side with the strikers and making the military commander a woman.

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