Review: Mother Nature permitting, latest Odyssey offering is limber night of theatre

From the cast of Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia: Front: David daCosta, Natalia Gracious; Rear: Catriona Leger, David Warburton. Photo: Noah Davidson

Think the Ottawa weather has been punishing this summer? It’s been a cakewalk compared to the situation in Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia, David S. Craig’s trenchant eco-comedy currently making its world premiere at Odyssey Theatre in Strathcona Park.

With nods to the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, classical Greek theatre, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and The Three Stooges, Craig’s play gleefully mixes past, present and future, cultural and entertainment icons, and pretty much anything he feels will help drive home his message about catastrophic climate change along with his take on patriarchy, love, and mankind’s unchanging cluelessness.

That he stitches this and more into a coherent, funny, tragic and always limber show is testament to Craig’s writing and his sure-handed directing along with his well-balanced cast.

It was all good enough to almost weather opening night, when Mother Nature was in a combative but timely mood. Apparently eager to remind us – as she does the folks in the play — that she still rules, she thrice disrupted the outdoor show with rain, eventually forcing Odyssey to call it entirely in the home stretch.

A passing stranger, who was clearly disturbed, added his own touch of chaos by climbing onto the stage and verbally abusing the stunned cast before wandering off into the night.

The play itself, based loosely indeed on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, takes place in some fictional spot a century hence. Climate change is in full regalia, visiting terrible heat and sudden, vicious storms on the earth as a punishment for – or at least consequence of – humanity’s hubris in not changing its eco-wrecking ways.

Humanity in the play is as adept at denial as it is at planetary carnage. “It’s just the weather,” the characters say time and again as they, like frogs who are unaware they are being boiled to death as the water’s temperature slowly rises, pursue their own, self-centred agendas. And if denial doesn’t work, there are always pills: “A chilly a day keeps the worry away,” we were told in a singsong line that could have come straight from Huxley.

Swept up in this looming catastrophe of their own and others’ making are three couples.

Lysistrata (Shelley Simester) and Cleon (Martin Julien) are a long-married, childless pair. The iron-willed Lysistrata is barren, like many other women in this desiccated world where the oceans are dead, the only remaining animals live in zoos, and men call the shots. She hungers for a child, as does her overbearing husband, although, barring an offspring, he’s content to pursue his would-be career as a tyrant plotting a military coup. Pick your 2018 autocrat: Cleon fits the mold.

Also on tap: perennially anxious, attention-loving Cassandra (Sarah Finn), who’s married to Pietr (Lisa Norton, whose casting as a man is a bit of a puzzle). Pietr, who’s one of Cleon’s underlings, would be domineering if he could and if he weren’t married to someone much slyer than he.

The third couple is the adventurous upstart Pandora (Natalia Gracious) and the amorous Theo (David daCosta), who also reports to Cleon. This young, playful twosome want to discover what’s under each other’s garb (Lori Hickling’s costumes cheekily blend classical Greek and contemporary design), but negotiations on that front are ongoing.

Punctuating the action are G (David Warburton) and H (Catriona Leger, who also plays the goddess Gaia). Slaves in Lysistrata’s household, they serve as an unruly, silent Greek chorus, passing pointed comment on the couples and life circa 2118.

Taking his cue from Aristophanes’ original, where the women withhold sex in an attempt to make their men end the devastating Peloponnesian War, Craig throws a sex strike into the blend. The women, warned by the goddess Gaia that things won’t go well for the human race unless a little respect is shown to the planet, decide to hold their mates libidos ransom to force men to do something about climate change.

In all this and what follows, Craig employs humour to wonderful effect. An eco-play could be ponderous, but there’s not a whiff of that here. Instead, just as the play edges toward finger-wagging, Craig throws in a joke, easing rather than shoving us toward his point of view.

Set and mask designer Jerrard Smith has created a backdrop of whimsically painted grassy fields and bright flowers – a world we still have a chance to save – anchored by the remnants of Gaia’s temple.

Smith has also paid tribute to the masks that for so long helped mark Odyssey’s signature Commedia Dell’Arte style. It’s a style the company has been peppering with other elements for the past few years and that, this summer, is virtually non-existent.

Craig’s play is one as laden with content as were the clouds on opening night. It’s content we’d best heed, for our descendents if not ourselves.

Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia is in Strathcona Park (Sandy Hill) until Aug. 26. Tickets and information: 613-232-8407,  Tickets are also available at the venue 30 minutes before the performance.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.