Review: 'Congress of Women' delivers bawdy political message

So how does one make a play about the politics and social mores of ancient Greece relevant to a contemporary audience? Well, the University Theatre attempts that feat with its production of Aristophanes' "A Congress of Women" in the William Inge Memorial Theatre. Adapted by director Dennis Christilles from "Ecclesiazusae," this version of Aristophanes' comedy maintains the original's bawdy humor and broad political satire, but little imagination is needed to recognize its current political target.

The plot concerns a group of Athenian women tired of being denied a voice in the Athenian assembly. Saying that "the leaders have lost the ability to lead," they decide to disguise themselves as men, entering the assembly and voting to place women in charge. Led by the idealistic Praxagora (Lavinia Roberts), the women set out to "eliminate treachery," "do away with poverty" and "achieve happiness for all."

In the meantime, Praxagora's husband, Blepyros (Lawrence Henderson), misses the assembly meeting because of chronic constipation, which has him attempting to relieve himself at every opportunity. Yes, accompanying its idealistic political activism is a colorful array of scatological humor. Apparently, the problem is that nothing is moving in Athens.

When the women reach power, Praxagora plans to establish a kind of proto-Communist government in which all money is given to the state for distribution to the citizenry. In addition to being angry that he is no longer to be paid for his service to the government, Blepyros is appalled that he is being required to give over his fortune.




Showtimes

When: 7:30 p.m. today-Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: William Inge Memorial Theatre, Murphy Hall, 1530 Naismith Drive Tickets: Adults, $12; students, $10; seniors and KU faculty and staff, $11 Ticket info: 864-3982

Unfortunately, the inevitable corruption ensues. The women elect a puppet leader - Thanasis, the sex-crazed husband (Brady Blevins) of Praxagora's friend Dionysia (Wendy Lynn Casebier) - who vows to "tell the people what they wish to hear and then tell them what to think about what he tells them."

Attempting to restore the power of the chorus in this play and remind audiences of the feel of an ancient Greek theatrical experience, Christilles has composed a series of songs for the chorus performed with choreography by Kansas University student Meggi Sweeney. These moments of spectacle provide commentary on the action that has gone before. Sweeney's choreography and costume designer Andrea Long's colorful costumes are impressive. Another addition is Aristophanes himself (Dale Buchheister), who addresses the audience accompanied by two puppets representing Plato and Socrates, offering a discussion of the role of government and art in society. Buchheister is very funny here, but Aristophanes' wit needs crispness and pace; the numerous breaks in the action of an already thin plot break that pace too often.

This is a beautiful production; Christilles' set design of earth tones is a wonderful complement to Long's costumes. Although the performances feel a bit exaggerated - too big for the intimate Inge space - there are some thoughtful moments, and while the constant elements of low comedy are tiresome, the cast members are enthusiastic and committed to their performances. Political satire can sometimes bash with an ax rather than slice with a rapier; this play probably does a bit more of the former.

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