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Ancient Greece in Modern Drag

Classics students and profs take the stage in “Lysistrata” on March 29

The classical studies department uses Arts and Sciences Dean Jeffrey Henderson’s "Aristophanes" translations in their annual performances. Image courtesy of Barnes & Noble

Eight years ago, the University’s classical studies faculty realized that their department was blessed with great academic talent, including the leading American Aristophanes scholar, a contingent of hardworking undergraduates, and a small, close-knit group of professors.
To celebrate, they put on feather boas, ordered pizza, and staged a bawdy performance of an Aristophanes play. Students got prime speaking parts, and eminent faculty dressed in drag and wound up on the receiving end of the playwright’s witty barbs. The tradition has continued every year since.

“It’s very true to life,” says Stephanie Nelson, an assistant professor of classical studies and the producer-director of the event since 2003. “In the Greek dramatic tradition, theater was one of the ways for the little guy to see the high-and-mighty guys punctured.”

Today the department will present Aristophanes’ famous anti-war play, Lysistrata, at 6 p.m. in Room B50 at 675 Commonwealth Ave. As always, the company is using a translation by Arts and Sciences Dean Jeffrey Henderson, the University’s William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of Greek Language and Literature and an expert in the Greek comic dramatists. And Lysistrata — in which the women of Greece withhold sex from their husbands until the men promise to end the Peloponnesian War — offers plenty of humor.

“It’s very, very, very irreverent, sexual, and outrageous,” Nelson says. “And students get to laugh at the faculty, which I think is healthy.”

The production, cosponsored by the Undergraduate Classics Association, the Classics House, and the Core Curriculum, is largely a way for students and faculty to relax, have fun, and get to know one another a little better. Everyone participates — this year’s cast includes approximately 35 undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty — and the atmosphere is strictly informal, bordering on chaotic. No one memorizes lines, and costumes are pulled together from previous performances and the discount bins at local shops. Professors provide the soundtrack; this year, department chair Loren J. Samons II will perform.

But despite the annual performance’s casual beginnings, it has inadvertently served an academic purpose for everyone involved. Students can use it as a way to learn about ancient Greek theatrical tradition, which was lively and required audience interaction. And in her role as producer, Nelson has found that adapting a text for performance brings it to light in a new way.

“You really get to know a lot about the play,” she says, “since you’re trying to figure out what makes the audience laugh.”

Lysistrata will be performed on Thursday, March 29, at 6 p.m. in the Stone Science Building, 675 Commonwealth Ave., Room B50. Admission is free.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.