Hard Up 

When balloon dicks raise the bar, you know it's a wacky Lysistrata.

Aristophanes' antiwar comedy Lysistrata, in which the women of Ancient Greece organize a sex strike to stop the Peloponnesian War, has been performed particularly often as a form of protest since the US invasion of Iraq, which isn't bad for a play written in 411 BC. The African-American Shakespeare Company did it in San Francisco just this March.

Now Actors Ensemble of Berkeley takes it on in Ellen McLaughlin's contemporary adaptation. It's a surprisingly short show, less than an hour, all the more surprising because it often feels like an eternity.

McLaughlin's script has some clever touches in the catchy sloganeering, fourth-wall breaking, and women complaining they've only just finally managed to teach their men what they like in bed, but the jokes and the political points are buried here in overdone wackiness. Director Noona Nolan has done stage versions of Reservoir Dogs and Night of the Living Dead, but here the broad comedy falls flat, such as Melissa Craven and Emily Broderick's gratuitous pratfalls as the go-go dancing chorus.

The incidental pop music is well chosen, and there are some decent performances amid the mugging and muddled slapstick. Tina Arriola brings commanding confidence to Athenian ringleader Lysistrata, especially while trying to head off horny wives trying to sneak out for a quickie. Eden Nelson has a nice balance of hunger and resolve as Myrrhine while sensuously cockteasing her husband Cinesias, played broadly by Sean Kelly with grunts and doglike panting.

A particularly painful face-off between old geezers and crones, in which grotesque grimaces are the main clues that they're even supposed to be elderly, manages the unthinkable: It makes you yearn for prop comedy. Bring on the fake dicks! Indeed, the show livens up considerably with the addition of a few appropriately twisted balloon phalluses and accompanying penis jokes, in the timelessly classy manner of classical comedy. As funny as balloon dicks are (especially when one accidentally pops), when they raise the bar, so to speak, it's not a good sign.

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