By Don Shirley, Times Staff Writer

Can plays help prevent wars?

Aristophanes' classic comedy "Lysistrata" was written in response to the Peloponnesian War, an internecine dispute among the ancient Greeks. It depicted the women from both sides of the war uniting in a sex strike, refusing to make love with their men until the war ended. Yet the play didn't stop the war, which continued for seven more years.

Undeterred, theatrical peace activists around the world are about to try again. This time, they're hoping to help prevent a war in Iraq -- or at least to raise awareness of the issues surrounding it.

Their contribution to the antiwar effort: readings of "Lysistrata" or adaptations of it or other works inspired by it, all on the same day -- Monday. Most of the "Lysistrata" readings will benefit various peace- and human rights-oriented charities, such as, ACLU of Southern California and Women's International League of Peace and Freedom, with the beneficiaries to be decided by the sponsors of each reading. The campaign is similar to -- but bigger than -- a collection of poets' antiwar events that took place Feb. 12.

More than 750 readings are scheduled to take place in 49 countries.

The effort began in a Jan. 4 communication between two New York-based actresses, Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower. Bower e-mailed Blume that day, not in pursuit of any worldwide peace effort but simply as "part of my actor networking," Bower recalled. She thought that Blume might know of possible work at a theater company Blume's husband runs in Vermont.

Blume wasn't very helpful about a Vermont job but wanted to know if Bower would like to participate in a reading of "Lysistrata," a play that Blume was trying to adapt into a screenplay.

As they continued their conversation, they came up with the idea of casting celebrities in the reading to raise money for peace causes, in conjunction with an already announced campaign in which some New York theaters were planning to erect posters and insert notices in programs on March 2, declaring that they were "theaters against war."

Blume thought the "Theaters Against War" event was planned for March 3, only to discover later that she was mistaken, Bower said. But the two women decided to keep their reading on March 3 because most theatrical productions are dark on Mondays.

The project began ballooning. Within a day, Bower had e-mailed a friend in Austin, Blume had e-mailed a friend in Seattle, and the idea began to spread.

Within two days, Bower -- who also works as a graphic designer -- had started writing text for a Web site for what was now called the Lysistrata Project (, not to be confused with a previously existing After the site was up, the two women e-mailed everyone they knew. "It was one of those chain letters," Bower said, "but people didn't delete it. At least it had an end date of March 3, unlike most of those letters." Within two weeks, 150 readings were scheduled.

The organizer of one of the North Hollywood readings, Company Rep artistic director Hope Alexander, emphasized the importance of the Internet in spreading the "Lysistrata" idea and contrasted it with the methods of antiwar activists in the Vietnam War era. "Did we stop that war by protesting it? I don't know," she said. "But we didn't have the Internet then. We weren't tied together. Political activism over the Internet can be profound. When that many people put out positive energy, it can change the world."

In Southern California, more than 25 readings are now on tap. Farther north, a couple in San Francisco is planning a reading in the hospital room where one of the organizers is suffering from a terminal disease, Bower said.

The Lysistrata Project is reaching many smaller cities and towns where antiwar marches are unlikely to take place. Ojai is on the list. So is Show Low, Ariz. When women from a commune in Hawaii contacted project organizers in New York about doing a reading, they used the telephone because they have no electricity and therefore no access to the Web site.

Internationally, some of the more intriguing readings are scheduled for Damascus, Jerusalem and Beirut. In the last city, the text will be a short play inspired by "Lysistrata" called "The Starter of War," which includes a poem by an Iraqi playwright, Jawad Al-Assadi.

Three readings are slated for Athens, where the original play was set. For a Chinese reading, the organizers have asked that time and place not be publicized on the Web site. They feared repercussions, said Lysistrata Project campaign manager Mark Greene.

Although "Lysistrata," with its sexual references, might not be a kid-friendly play, elementary groups can still participate using sanitized adaptations linked to the Lysistrata Project Web site. In one of them, the women ofGreece refuse "to take care of their families, so the men are forced to do the 'dirty work' until peace is achieved," says the Web site.

Perhaps the largest event in Los Angeles, and one of the first to be organized, will take place at the 1,270-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre in the Wilshire district. Twenty small theater companies joined forces for it, led by Gleason Bauer of the Zoo District. Actress Jane Alexander, currently in "Rose and Walsh" at the Geffen Playhouse and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is among the scheduled participants. Twenty dollars will reserve a seat, but tickets at the door will be available on a pay-what-you-can basis.

Just 13 days ago, the starriest L.A. reading was announced. Julie Christie, Alfre Woodard, Christine Lahti, Mary McDonnell, Barbara Williams, Eric Stoltz, Roscoe Lee Browne and Jose Zuniga are on the list of participants in a reading at the LAFCO (Los Angeles Filmmaker Cooperative) Powerhouse Cultural Space in Venice. Tom Hayden will introduce the event, and John Densmore of the Doors will provide music.

The LAFCO event will take place almost directly across the street from a previously scheduled "Lysistrata" event at Pacific Resident Theatre. "The more the merrier," said Valerie Dillman, the Pacific Resident Theatre event organizer. Her theater seats only 99 (tickets: $10). The LAFCO space seats 150 (tickets: $15), with a large-screen simulcast and an additional 100 chairs set up outside the LAFCO site to accommodate those who can't get in.

The other L.A. event with star participants is the Company Rep reading at the 99-seat American Renegade Theatre in North Hollywood, where Charles Durning and Charlotte Rae are expected (suggested donation: $10 or $20).

But will George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein be affected by readings of a 24-century-old play? Or is just raising awareness enough?

"I don't think 'Lysistrata' will change minds," Bower said. "We're hardly expecting Laura Bush or Hussein's wives to enact the tactics of the women in the play. But it will help get the message across that Bush is not speaking for all Americans. And it may open up conversations that wouldn't otherwise have happened. We're using the only thing we have -- as poor, unemployed actors -- in the same way that the women in the play used the only means available to them."

Woodard, discussing her participation in the LAFCO event, said, "I'm a black woman. If I did things only because I thought people would listen and react, I'd be up a tree. Changes may not take place in my lifetime, but I'm part of a continuum. It's important for my children to see that we are all in this together."

Is it "preaching to the choir"? "Sometimes the choir needs to hear a good hymn," Woodard said. "You can pray at home, but you go to church because it's a community. It's a way of expressing a common idea."

Veteran playwright and screenwriter Larry Gelbart, whose own adaptation of "Lysistrata" was pulled from a production in Massachusetts last year -- because, he said, the leading lady found it too racy -- is more skeptical about preaching to the choir. "We need converts," he said.

Gelbart is allowing part of his "Lysistrata" adaptation to be read in New York Monday, and he said adaptations of Aristophanes' play are certainly appropriate for the occasion.

"It's a cry from the heart of women: Don't take the men out of our lives and waste them. If you insist on doing that, we'll remove your ability to come up with replacements." However, he said, "I don't think the bunch in Washington hears cries of the heart. You have to have one to hear one."
Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Worldwide war protest takes a sexier approach
Local actors participate in the Lysistrata Project, based on a Greek comedy in which women take a stand for peace.

The Orange County Register

A war protest of a lighter tone made its case this week in 59 countries with more than 1,000 events, including two in Orange County.

The Lysistrata Project, started as an idea by Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower in New York City, is a worldwide staged reading of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," which took place Monday. The anti- war comedy, written by the Greek playwright in 411 B.C., tells the story of a group of women led by Lysistrata, whose name means "disband the army," and how they withheld sex from the soldiers of two opposing states.

The project's main message is in support of continued weapons inspections in Iraq by the United Nations and against a pre-emptive attack by the United States.

"What differentiates this and other kinds of protests are the mass numbers participating worldwide," said Dave Barton, artistic director of Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company, which held its reading in the Empire Theater in Santa Ana. "Every state in the country has a reading, and I believe there's one in China, although they didn't come out with it because it might be shut down by the government."

Five-year-old Rude Guerrilla decided to do the event with the Garage Theatre and loud*R*mouth Theatre companies of Long Beach, the first time it has worked with outside groups.

"This is a kinder, gentler protest than the ones with the signs on the streets," Barton said. "I've kind of done that before in my life. But here we do political work anyway, so it's natural for us."

Jamie Sweet, director and co-founder of Garage Theatre, said they persuaded the Empire Theater, owned by Rude Guerilla, to do the production.

"Dave and I, we share political beliefs," Sweet said. "And I knew he'd love to do this. It's a necessary opportunity for people who have an opinion who don't have a forum to express it."

The play garnered applause and laughter from the crowd, which numbered around 60. The story presents humorous portrayals of teasing women and frustrated men quick to end the war just to be with their wives again.

"What we have here is a 2,000-year-old play about making love, not war," Barton said.

California State University, Fullerton, held a reading earlier in the day, drawing a crowd more than 100. It incorporated props of phallic imagery, including empty missile casings, bananas and canes.

Ryan Young, a 19-year-old sophomore and theater major at CSUF, feels the protest is more effective than the traditional means.

"This is a better medium than just (carrying) signs which have no effect," Young said. "Once people see the kind of work and thought behind somethinglike this, they might be affected. And it's really a moving play if you've ever read or heard it."

And would Lysistrata's plan work concerning the current situation?

"I think we ought to try it," Barton said. "If it work[s] in [some
marriages,] it should work on [the rest] of us."