Entertainment » Theatre

The Congresswomen

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday May 9, 2018
A scene from "The Congresswoman."
A scene from "The Congresswoman."  (Source:Jay Yamada)

If the world ever finds out how much of classic literature is actually just dick jokes and fart references, Humanities departments everywhere will quake and fall into the sea.

The jig is mostly up with the new production of Aristophanes' "The Congresswomen" at the EXIT Theater, which even boasts on the fliers that this 2,400-year-old farce features possibly the earliest recorded poop joke in the history of theater.

Indeed, that gag goes on so long and features so many strained and raving facial expressions from Steven Westdahl as an Athenian nobleman stricken with intestinal distress that it might well take up ten percent of this show's runtime, making poop jokes something of a potential quorum here.

There's also a single erection joke that lasts at least five minutes on its own, as well as liberal use of phrases like "cleft of Aphrodite" and "trying to force language from a turd."

For the record, not every translation of this play employs quite the same terms, so whether it's Aristophanes or director Stuart Bousel who better knows what audiences respond to is up in the air. But it all gets the same laughs either way.

In "The Congresswomen," quick-thinking Athenian housewife Praxagora (Nicole Odell) sneaks her friends into the city assembly disguised as their own husbands (the fake beards make everyone look like leftover dwarves from a "Hobbit" movie) and talks civic leaders to turning total political control over to Athens' women.

This amounted to an apocalyptic fantasy in Aristophanes' day, as did Praxagora's idea of abolishing all private property in favor of a giant Utopian welfare state. Note that this show opened on Karl Marx's birthday.

As much as a modern San Francisco crowd might preen at the prospect of ancient women revolutionaries and ur-Marxist class upheaval, the truth is Aristophanes is just another ancient Greek chauvinist with some rather crotchety and dismissive attitudes about women in particular and people in general, all on display here.

And truth be known, the show is a bit of a wobbly affair, having more the atmosphere of a pageant (Marykerin Naughton's too-flat looking set exacerbates this problem). And the whole business just sort of peters out in the end rather than coming to any particular conclusion, beyond some cynical observations that a revolution is only as good as the people.

As satire, "The Congresswomen" ages about as well as last election cycle's bumper stickers.

But as pure comedy, there's hardly any resisting it. Not only because of the willfully foolish, barbarically crude antique humor, but also because of the knowing and somewhat self-deprecating style Bousel coaxes out of it.

There is a quality of personal mockery in how high-minded and confident Odell seems even in the face of disaster that's cathartic for well-intentioned Bay Area types, for example.

And whether it's Lauren Andrei Garcia squealing as airhead revolutionary or Elliot Lieberman (previously the nitwit brother in Bousel's "House of Yes") doing eyebrow gymnastics as a cynical simpleton, even the silliest of these roles is oddly relatable, as we're all guilty of the same indulgences in the face of higher ideals sometimes.

And the laughs are pretty merciless in how hard and often they come. The fact that a play reduces the audience to helpless hysterics does not necessarily always make it good. But it does this time.

This being another election year, audiences could really use a humane laugh anyway.

"The Congresswomen" runs through May 23 at the EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 717-979-7122 or visit www.theexit.org.

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