The Celebration Theatre concludes its 25th season with a sensational Sissystrata, a visually dazzling, outrageously funny adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata a la West Hollywood.

Playwright Allain Rochel, who gayed up Euripides The Bacchae last season, has returned to give us an even gayer Greek classic, with director par excellence Michael Matthews once again at the helm, combining talents to create a stunner of a production which gets an “A” for Absolutely Fabulous.

For those not familiar with the 1597-year-old original, Lysistrata is a still relevant antiwar comedy in which the women of Athens withhold sex from their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War and secure peace. Recent years have seen numerous adaptations including a pair of operas, a New York City updating set and performed in Central Park, and still another set in South America. There’s even a 1976 Belgian film in which the entire cast performs Lysistrata naked (due to budgetary reasons), which is unfortunately not available on DVD.

With war still raging in Iraq and polls showing the very real threat of a McCain victory in November, along with renewed interest in repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” a gay version of Lysistrata is well-timed indeed.

Here, the title character has become West Hollywood’s Seymore “Sissy” Strata, a fabulous dancer slash choreographer who is sick and tired of the war in Iraq–and of what it’s doing to his love life. The year is 2013 and with gay men now allowed to serve openly in the Armed Forces, all the tops are too busy expending testosterone as soldiers to pay any attention to the sissy bottoms who love them back home.

As in Lysistrata, sex is withheld until peace is declared, with side-splitting results.  Rochel’s script follows Aristophanes plot quite closely (though unlike The Bacchae, here all dialog is contemporary, and filled with pop references which gays in attendance are sure to eat up).  As in Lysistrata, the protagonists swear an oath of allegiance by drinking wine, though here they do it with Mimosas. As in the Greek original, our heroes agree that should sex be forced upon them, they will make it as uncomfortable as possible (squeeze girls, squeeze!).  Aristophanes has the Athenian women seizing the Acropolis, where the State treasure is kept.  Rochel has them barricading themselves in (where else?) The Abbey, where WeHo gays meet and greet.

As “Sissy” Strata, Celebration regular Michael Taylor Gray gets a role he was born to play, and he plays Sissy for all he’s worth.  The triple-threat actor, who brought Judy Garland drag-o-liciously back to life in Judy At The Stonewall, and earlier this season proved himself equally adept at subtle in A Christmas Carol, couldn’t be more fabulous as Sissy, from the moment he first appears in platinum haired drag, lip-synching to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” the first of several electric production numbers featuring choreographer Marvin Tunney’s Vegas-ready dance moves. 

Surrounding Gray are Sissy’s equally fabulous quartet of henchsissies. There’s beefy sissy Stephan (accent on the “phan”), portrayed to hunky/swishy perfection by muscular Peter Calandra. Gym bunny Cal Nike is brought to pouty-lipped life by a marvelous Aaron Lee Misakian.  Drew Miller, as O.C. boy Jim Buddy, couldn’t be cuter or more flamboyantly splendid. Most fabuloso of all is bilingual Latin bombshell Lampito (Michael Calas), who could give Charo lessons in Cuchi-Cuchi.

Nemesis to the aforementioned beauties is military officer John Strate, an “straight-acting homosexual” who believes that men should be men, even when having sex with other men, preferably of the manly variety.  John Michael Beck hits all the right notes as Strate, making him just sympathetic enough that when romance begins to appear on the horizon, we are on his side, and the side of love of the happily-ever-after variety.

Blaine Vedros is convincing (and funny) as Cinesias, Stephan’s soldier boyfriend, who’s at the end of his sexual rope, with a major protrusion tenting his fatigues to prove it.  Completing the cast are Ryan Bergmann, Thomas Colby, and Christopher Grant Pearson, fine indeed as a trio of gays in the military who look equally good in spangled briefs as they do in uniform.

Rochel’s script is not merely filled with one-liners (which provoke yet another laugh about every 15 seconds). The playwright has also managed to keep Aristophanes’ antiwar message strong, as well as send out a sissy manifesto to the gay community: Gay is gay and there is no “right” or “better” way to be gay. In fact, Sissystrata should be required viewing for anyone who has ever used the term “straight acting” as a compliment.  80 minutes with these fabulous sissies (played with love and respect by Gray and his cohorts) and minds will surely be opened.

Sissystrata is director Matthews’ swan song as Artistic Director of the Celebration and what a way to go out with a flourish.  Under Matthews leadership, the Celebration has had three prideworthy seasons, and if #3 didn’t have its Beautiful Thing (Matthews’ finest work as a director and the best Celebration show in the past three years), it concludes with a double bang, first the exquisite Songs From An Unmade Bed and now the surefire hit Sissystrata.  As this past spring’s Stupid Kids proved, Matthews is a master of the visual, and a whiz at integrating dance and music into drama (or comedy).  Fortunately, it’s not necessary to bid Matthews a fond farewell because (even as another talented Michael (A. Shepperd) takes over artistic reins), Matthews himself returns in October to direct Chay Yew’s Porcelain.

Besides “Since U Been Gone,” ace choreographer Tunney’s other dance numbers include the horny/lonely sissies’ ode to their longed-for spouses featuring a bewigged Calandra lip-synching to Tina Turner’s “Missing You,” a rockin’ Liz Phair’s “Love/Hate Transmission” (“It’s a war, all the love and hate, and nothin’s gonna change”), and a sweet sweet grand finale of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.”

The Bacchae’s entire design team is back for Sissystrata and doing some of their best work ever.  With Kurt Boetcher’s gorgeously multicolored flower-bedecked set, the Celebration has never looked more ready for a celebration.  Marjorie Lockwood’s costumes are a wonder of imagination and flamboyance, Tim Swiss’s lighting is as gorgeous a feat as was his work in Unmade Bed (but night and day different), and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design once again proves why she is so deservedly in demand in this town. Ryan Poulson returns to the Celebration with more tuneful original music.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a show called “Sissystrata.” In the back of my mind, I was thinking, “This could be quite a disaster.”  Oh, but I was wrong, and I’m delighted to admit it! I absolutely loved Sissystrata, and the cheers which accompanied the opening night curtain calls proved the audience to be in enthusiastic agreement.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
August 22, 2008
Photos: Ephrain Schunior

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