By Patricia Grysiewicz
A three-foot-long phallus, flashing lights and a stage full of actors who strip down to their underwear make Aristophanes’ Lysistrata hard to forget.
Ryerson’s acting grads and director John Van Burek present Lysistrata and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet this week in repertory. Two plays with similar themes, but obvious differences.
In Lysistrata, Spartan and Athenian women withhold sex from their lovers while trying to tempt them, until the desperate men end the Peloponnesian War.
Presented in modern-day Toronto, the pla, written in 411 BC, appeals to the 20th century audience. It reminds us of the age-old motto: “never underestimate the power of a woman,” and a song from the play still rings true: “What Can a Poor Man Do?”
But to top it all off, when the men are at their weakest point in the play, Lysistrata (played by Meredith Sharpe) brings in a stark-naked character named Peace.
Sharpe recalls the funniest moment she had over the three months of rehearsals.
“The first time Steven Puchalski [Kinesias] put his big penis on, I couldn’t stop laughing. At one point it got limp and they had to send it off to props to get it stiff again,” she says.
On the other end of the spectrum is Romeo and Juliet, a true-to-the-script, tear-jerking tragedy of lost love in the midst of a feuding family — the perfect Valentine’s Day outing.
Van Burek, a director of 20 years at le Theatre francais de Toronto, says, “I can’t see how anybody who has an interest in being in love would pass up a chance to see it.”
Romeo (J.D. Smith) and Juliet (Samantha Espie) emote a feeling of true passion. The actors say the energy on stage is unbelievable and Espie finds her most difficult task controlling the emotions that surge through her when she performs her part.
She remembers one time after rehearsing the death scene when she was hit by an “overwhelming surge of tears” while caught up in the magic of the story.
But there’s more than romance to this classic. The swordsmanship and flow in the production are choreographed to perfection.
Stephen Mason (who plays Gregory) says, “for every second of a fight, we had an hour of rehearsal.”
Romeo and Juliet and Lysistrata opened on Feb. 10 and 11, in celebration of the Ryerson Theatre Company’s 25th anniversary and as a special tribute to Tony Abrams, a beloved acting professor who died of heart failure in December.
Espie says, “Tony gave me a sense of pride, beauty, romance and class. He was a romantic and he’s a big part of our energy on the stage.”