Busy Lizzie: EmStage opens season with conscious comedy

by Natalie Busch / Beacon Staff • February 10, 2016

Ashley Renée Dixon as Lizzie Stranton tangos with “Male Leader.”
Courtesy of Craig Bailey Photo
Ashley Renée Dixon as Lizzie Stranton tangos with “Male Leader.”
Courtesy of Craig Bailey Photo

In the near future, the First Lady of the United States calls together powerful women from countries around the world to save the human race from ruin. The men have started global wars they cannot finish, and she has a plan to end it: abstinence.  

Lizzie Stranton is a play written by Lydia Diamond, in which the titular character enacts a plan of no sex until the world’s leaders declare peace. The production ran for four performances last weekend in Tufte’s Greene Theater. Emerson Stage produced the show and Lee Mikeska Gardner, the artistic director of The Nora Theatre Company, directed it.

The play is a modern reimagining of the Greek play Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes. The eponymous character convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex from the men until they end the Peloponnesian War. Gardner said the issues of war and gender inequality in 2016 and 411 B.C. are frighteningly similar. 

“The conversation is more elevated and we’re much more aware of the notion of privilege,” Gardner said. “But the root issues haven’t changed and that should give pause for thought. In all these years, how much have we really grown as a species?” 

The show tackles serious topics, but a healthy dose of humor accompanies the social commentary. For example, alongside discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and class, the women of Lizzie Stranton celebrate their newfound independence with a dance number involving dildos. 

“It has a lot of different styles of comedy in it from verbal witticisms to broad grotesque comedy to sex jokes to political jokes,” Gardner said. “I thought that I would end up having to spend a lot of time working with the students on the comedy but that proved totally wrong. They brought it.”

Emily White, a senior performing arts major and the play’s dramaturg, said Lizzie Stranton is comparable to The Colbert Report because they both use laughter to open up audiences to serious social issues.

“In Aristophanes’ time, when he wrote Lysistrata, it was this up-to-the-minute social commentary on his society,” White said. “Everything in Lysistrata was too real for his audience, but it was so silly and ridiculous that everybody was open to listening to it. And it’s the same thing with Lizzie Stranton.”

White said the show’s examination of race, gender, and sexuality drew her to the production. 

“Pretty much any intersectional issue is at least touched upon in this play,” White said, “and I think the hope is that it will inspire some really good conversations.”

Ashley Renée Dixon, who played the lead, said the production was enticing because of its diverse cast. Diamond specifically wrote Lizzie as African-American, Sara Li Kimoko as half Japanese and half Chinese, Caylon as Latina-American, and Azima as Middle Eastern to foster representation. 

“It really gives women the place to take charge and take the lead, which, unfortunately we're not really given,” the sophomore performing arts major said. “It gives people of different races a voice and it doesn’t filter those people at all.”

Dixon said she admired the way Lizzie took on the responsibility of changing the patriarchal world structure.

“I love her resolve and her strength. I love how free and bold she is,” Dixon said. “I was really inspired by the first ladies like Michelle Obama who aren’t going to just sit there and be the wife. They want to do something with their lives.”

Dixon said it was comforting to be in a production with many diverse women.

“Coming here as a freshman and seeing the shows, it was kind of sad not seeing myself or other women of color being represented at Emerson Stage,” Dixon said. “This just makes me look forward to the future. Hopefully the next step could be casting people of color in roles where they’re not needed to be people of color.”

Dixon singled out Sara Li Kimoko as one of the most fascinating characters in the show. Mona Moriya, a junior performing arts major, played Kimoko. Moriya is the president of ASIA, Emerson’s Asian Students for Intercultural Awareness organization. 

“We always have this preconceived notion about how Asian women are supposed to be,” Dixon said. “[Kimoko] completely breaks down those barriers. I think all the characters do such an amazing job of that, and I’m so glad Lydia wrote it to be that way.”

Out of a cast of 21 Emerson students, 13 of the actors were female. Meghan Cotoni, a sophomore who played Cynthia, Lizzie Stranton’s right hand woman, said this was a refreshing change.

“It’s totally female dominated, which is so incredibly cool because that is really not the case in a lot of theater and the arts in general,” the performing arts major said. “It was such a nice process full of powerful, funny, loving, witty women.”

Audience member Marci Zaroff said she enjoyed the performance. She is the mother of Jade Zaroff, a senior performing arts major and a cast member who was a part of the female chorus.

“I thought it was a really good balance of very progressive thinking, great humor, and a very talented, diverse cast,” Zaroff said. “It was a very well-written show.”

Cotoni said that the audience feedback she received reaffirmed what she sees as purpose of the play.

“They thought it was weird and they thought it was funny,” Cotoni said. “And that’s what it is. It’s just a big, ridiculous show with an important message.”