‘Lysistrata’ finds right tone at the end

The first 60 minutes or so of Nevada Conservatory Theatre’s "Lysistrata" is strained and sloppy. The final half-hour stretch, though, finds it growing into the effortlessly light roundelay that it wants to be. I don’t know that I’ve ever before seen a local production that had me changing my opinion of it so drastically in the final section.

Director/adapter Robert Benedetti has given Aristophanes’ 411 B.C. anti-war comedy — about a group of women who refuse to have sex with their solider husbands until they put down their weapons — an irreverent, sketch sensibility, placed in a full-round, traditional Greek-theater setting.

The nature of the material makes it easy to see relevancies to today — no matter when "today" happens to be. It’s curious, then, why in the first section Benedetti feels the need to do so much updating. People greet each other with hip bumps, high fives, and the likes of "Hi, Lysistrata, what’s up?" There are references to the Middle East, red-threat alerts, the Bush administration. The women strain to be funny, with vocal pitches high and squiggly. By the time we get to the meat of the material — the women’s desire to end war versus their carnal wants — we’re too exhausted from cuteness to care.

Late in the production, though, a new, appropriate level of satire seeps into the material. Men begin walking the land with profound erections (cleverly physicalized), carefully trying not to bump into each other. They use song, dance and pleas to try to bring their women home. When matters are finally settled — thanks in part to the physical attributes of a Vegas showgirl (Jaime Puckett) — all sides join with the audience in celebrating the wonders of peace. (The last moments are a more sedate "Let the Sunshine In" love-in.)

Wisely, Benedetti keeps the material humorous. He doesn’t overburden the themes with seriousness. But he finds his tone too late. The earlier sections need a gentler, less urgent voice that is given room to build.

The stage is never short of stunning, thanks to Ashleigh Poteat’s airy set, Zhenni Li’s costume parade of color and Michelle Warner’s elegant lighting.

The acting, though, is, without exception frantic and artificial, with no reality base. Katie Mazzola, in the title role, has a forced vocal quality that, when trying to be funny, is accentuated to unlistenable degrees.

Benedetti doesn’t show much of a knack for bringing out the best in student performers. And that’s a serious problem for a man who directs students.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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