"Fornication is something immortal in mortality," the scholar Jack Lindsay wrote, paraphrasing Plato. "[Plato] does not mean that the act itself is a godlike thing, a claim which any bedroom mirror would quickly deride. He means that it is a symbol, an essential condition, and a part of something that goes deeper into life than any geometry of earth's absurd, passionate, futile, and very necessary antics would suggest."
In just two sentences, Lindsay elevates the idea of sexual innuendo from crude comedy to philosophical axiom in his introduction to his 2008 translation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes.
Of course, then, it goes without saying: Who better to put on this play and deal with these ideas than a bunch of high school students?
Yet that's precisely what's being done this weekend by students of the New Mexico School for the Arts, New Mexico's public arts high school. The student body (admitted based on audition) seems up to the task of presenting the impossibly racy story, which was first performed in 411 BC.
The plot is fairly simple: The titular Lysistrata, a strong-willed woman in a Greece at war with itself, has grown tired of the fighting. Not to mention how all the young women's husbands are off getting killed while the women are left to languish at home, alone and to do both shares of life's work. (Ahem.) She springs an idea: Withhold physical affection until the war has ended. See how long the men can last.
This production, translated by Ian Johnston in 2010, is presented in easily accessible modern English and, by the way the students tell it, was actually way too dirty before it hit the hands of the faculty directors, Kate Chavez and Joey Chavez (no relation; the latter is referred to by students as Chav). I sat in on a Thursday afternoon rehearsal and some of the off-color jokes made me clutch my pearls; Kate Chavez laughed and said that this was nothing compared to the original script.
"Essentially, when Chav first told us that we were doing Lysistrata, everyone was like—'What?!'" says senior Myriah Duda, who plays the title role. Further, of the original culled script, Duda says, "The men have these huge phalluses hanging around, and there are really sexist lines in there that we had to cut because it's a school production."
There was plenty of conversation about why this show was chosen, though. "When I talked to Chav about why he picked this play, it's because women still have this problem: Their only power seems to be sex, their only power is whether or not they can please their man," Duda says. Owing to the cast's maturity, the social commentary of the show has not gone undiscussed.
Aristophanes paints gender politics as complex, too; in one scene in particular, the women desperately try to escape their makeshift nunnery-like celibacy fortress to go find their husbands for, you know, reasons. Lysistrata has to physically chase them down to keep them around; men aren’t painted as sex-starved dogs, nor are women endlessly pious.
But for the students, the greater ideas of justice via nonviolence stood out more strongly.
"It not only shows the power that a group of women can create, but it shows that it doesn't have to be done with violence," Duda says. "She confronts the patriarchy, but not with violence. And to me, that is where real power is, to confront it with love; with graciousness and with a real willingness to stop [the war] … because she has been in pain, and her women have been in pain. It pointed out to me how strong women are in our power."
Fellow senior Chloe Hanna, who plays the Leader of the Women's Chorus, expands on the idea: "The cool message that this play gives out is that we're all strong as individuals, but when we unite, we're a force to be reckoned with. I think it's something that's happening all over the country; people are getting together and starting to unite, which is a really cool thing to see."
The students of NMSA may be the perfect group to put this play on, not only due to their talent and professionalism, but because they're particularly dialed-in to the current political climate in the United States.
Junior John Helfrich, who plays the Leader of the Men's Chorus, says, "I think the social commentary should be given with a little comedy so it doesn't become too mind-numbingly dark, you know?" But that mind-numbing darkness is perhaps best processed through art; he continues, "At this school, everybody is very active, politically. We have a really good understanding of the issues that this play is making a commentary on. It's actually pretty natural for us."
Hanna is also of the mindset that they're a student body uniquely qualified to put on such a charged show, and that it's a credit to the school's tight, respectful community. "We're all very comfortable in speaking up and creating art like this, that is really political," she says of her fellow students (other disciplines at NMSA currently include music, dance and visual art). "Even if we don't see it in a political way, even if we're just having fun making innuendos onstage." She said that the directors, at the initial read-through, told the students that "this is a really important topic to talk about, especially now … and we want you to be responsible about this, and professional about this, but also have fun at the same time."
The immense trust that the NMSA faculty has placed in the students will pay off this weekend, when you can see a student production with the wit, deftness and clarity to rival any professional play you could find (and, as it were, maybe with even less giggling in the wings).
7 pm Friday and Saturday, Feb. 2 and 3; 2 pm Sunday Feb. 4. $5-$15. James A Little Theatre, 1060 Cerrillos Road, 476-6429; nmschoolforthearts.org/tickets