Two Feminist Retakes of Greek legend

One bitter, the other bawdy.

In a rare sort of feminist harmonic convergence, two shows are giving hell to the overbearing, bellicose, priapically centered chauvinism of classic Greek drama. The plays, while oddly united in sentiment, could not diverge more in the way they choose to stick it to the boys. One, Iphigenia & Other Daughters, opts for a more cerebral attack, undermining the world of men with a somber, earnest application of poetic melancholy; the other, Lysistrata: A Woman's Translation, simply reaches below the tunic and grabs the balls, playfully but firmly tweaking the perceived source of constant sorrow and aggravation.

Ellen McLaughlin's Iphigenia turns its gaze to the forgotten far shores of Greek legend. In the aftermath of Agamemnon's fateful decision to sacrifice his firstborn daughter, Iphigenia, and thus whip up the winds to power his idle armada, the women—left behind like so much human refuse while the Trojan War rages—suffer the consequences of a lack of control over their lives. There's Mom (Frances Hearn, who also directed the show), as bitter, jaded, and full of squelched sexuality as a middle-age Joan Crawford; Electra (Laurentia Barbu), who is literally chained to her monomaniacal craving for justice through revenge; and Chrysothemis, made philosophical by a surfeit of pain, but longing for a universe of peace, love, and understanding.

These three women, trapped together on a barren shore, go at each other like rabid dogs, displacing their inner suffering with a steady application of existential caterwauling and accusations of blame. Liberation from this prison of misery presents itself at last when, returned from the battlefront, avenging son Orestes (Andrea Haddad) confronts his family with an image of continual warfare.

The play toggles back and forth between a kind of brutalized domestic lyricism and a more high-flown urge to make its point in ponderous monologues about men, women, and warfare. When not spelling out its grievances in broad strokes, Iphigenia is quite riveting, a nicely modernized undermining of testosterone-dominated Greek drama. A large share of the play's success is due to two actors: Hearn plays Clytemnestra with a sharp, contemporary flair, turning her into a wizened, frustrated, and slightly debauched matron whose rancor knows few bounds. And as Electra, Barbu—with her dark good looks and heavy Romanian accent—chews up the scenery like a gothic nutcase, keeping her manic edge just this side of the ridiculous.

Definitely not this side of ridiculous is Lysistrata, Drue Robinson Hagan's bawdy, irreverent, foul-mouthed, and thoroughly badassed romp through Aristophanes' Greece, complete with pratfalls, pasties, and grossly swollen members. Directed by Troupe du Jour's Chryste Call, the play's construction and execution is limber to the point of being loose-limbed, but it's a total hoot. Led by Lysistrata (Kathleen Schroeder)—whom the magistrate dubs "a saucy little radical"—the women of Athens decide to withhold their sexual favors until the men collectively put down their arms and declare a lasting truce with Sparta. Not only that, but the chicks take over the treasury, creating a double whammy of blue balls and empty pockets. The sexes battle it out in a series of slapstick confrontations, punctuated by burlesque fan dancing to '70s disco hits (including the Commodores' "Brick House"). The outcome is as obvious as it is rewarding.

The dialogue is rendered in a kind of Seussian pentameter both ingenious and entirely foul (one couplet, for example, rhymes "ruckus" with "fuck us"), and the talented cast does its job with obvious relish. Stand–out performances include Schroeder's turn in the lead (the women call her Lys for short), Jay Irwin as the Paul Lynde–ish gay Magistrate, and Erin Douglass as Myrrhine, who executes a wildly provocative striptease to the heavy bar chords of Joan Jett's "Do You Wanna Touch Me." The play takes a few scathing digs at our growingly dystopic post-9/11 world—one grouchy Athenian dubs the women "the axis of evil"—but on the whole Lysistrata makes its serious points in such an unserious way, it's not until you leave the theater that you realize your blood is up. The message is clear: Women, in and of themselves, are revolutionary, and war won't cease until men quit mistaking their stiff pricks for swords.

Taken together, Lysistrata and Iphigenia make a poignant if uneven crosstown double feature—an on-the-boards Grindhouse, as it were, that seeks to overturn the inherited prejudices of Zeus' cosmos. But if you're going to take this double dose of revisionist drama, be sure to do it in the right order: See the heavy, sometimes heavy-handed Iphigenia first, then cleanse the palette with the naughty but nice Lysistrata. Melodrama, then comedy; argument, then sex; theory, then praxis—it's the winning prescription for all social change. And then everybody smokes a cigarette.

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