Author: Dylan Walker

All-female “Lysistrata” will not withold laughs

“We do have something you want, it just never occurred to us that we have the choice to give it to you,” the title character of “Lysistrata” tells the Magistrate of Athens. Some may suggest that ancient theater is not relevant to us today, but as campuses around the nation grapple with how to handle the ethics of consent, lines like this could have been written yesterday.

The St. Olaf Muse Project hopes to open up important conversations with their production of the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” as the all-female theater group kicks off their 2016-2017 season. The show was originally written by Aristophanes and adapted by Ellen McLaughlin. For two nights, Nov. 4 and 5, audiences will have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about gender and power, think about the importance of consent and laugh at a plethora of raunchy humor.

The St. Olaf Muse Project’s goal is to promote inclusive theater and raise up marginalized or undiscovered voices. Muse Project artistic director and director of “Lysistrata” Margaret Jacobson ’17 selected this play partly because of this.

“At the heart of it, it has a lot of messages – not just the very blatant one about war and peace,” Jacobson said. “There were commentaries that became clear about consent, and what it means to have women protesting in politics and how women in politics fall under so much more scrutiny than men in politics.”

“Lysistrata” tells the story of the Athenian woman Lysistrata, played by Lindsey Bertsch ’19, who has a “brilliant plan” to end the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta: convince all the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands until peace is declared. Naturally, the men of Athens are not a fan of this plan, and antics ensue.

The main character herself is subject to many of the commentaries Jacobson mentioned, and audiences should not miss seeing her in action.

“I think this retelling especially makes it pretty obvious that she definitely has a lot of her own personal interests in mind with this – ‘I want war to end, but I want the legacy to be the person that did this,’” Bertsch said of Lysistrata. “And we played around with the differences with Lysistrata when she’s around women as to when she’s around men. With women there’s this idea that someone has to be more masculine, whereas with men it’s more manipulation. She stands up for a good cause, but she’s pretty prideful about it.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to know what to make of a character whose opening line is, “I hate women.” Is she a feminist hero who ended war, or merely self-serving? Jacqueline Radke ’18 portrays the play’s antagonist, the Magistrate of Athens, and echoes this question.

“She’s a female lead, but the character is kind of a terrible female lead. The whole time she’s complaining about women,” Radke said.

While Lysistrata is a complicated character who is fun to analyze, and the text brings up many important and relevant discussions, we can’t forget that this play is meant to be funny. Therefore, we have to talk about the comic relief. Lysistrata is up against characters who range from “an epitome of the patriarchy” (as Radke characterizes the Magistrate) to simply buffoons, such as Kinesias (Holly Ness ’19), a soldier returning home from the war and hungry for sex with his wife Myrrhine (Catherine Stookey ’18). A large part of the play’s humor stems from these male figures. For example, audiences are sure to enjoy one particular scene in which Kinesias returns home from the war.

“He is so driven by his own desires that he is blind to everything else, and he is so dependent on his wife that he has trouble even just doing basic things, because he is very disoriented and doesn’t really know what’s happening,” Ness said regarding Kinesias. “Aristophanes is making fun of his own sex through this character who is just being pushed around through the show.”

Overall, cast members consider Lysistrata a powerful yet fun way to discuss important topics. Jacobson’s direction really plays up the comedy of the show, and one should expect a night full of laughs. The cast uses the Art Barn’s balcony and their close proximity to the audience well, there is plenty of physical comedy and the script is witty and full of sexual humor, typical of an Aristophanes play.

“There are so many innuendos, so many sex jokes. It’s so great,” Stookey said. “I’m sure they’re also present in the original text, but in this one it’s probably more obvious. That’s fun, and it’s going to be fun getting a lot of laughs for all the shenanigans.”

Make plans to come to the Art Barn and catch the Muse Project’s staging of “Lysistrata” on Nov. 4 or 5 to laugh the night away and think about the more serious topics the show comments on. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., and the show starts at 8:00 p.m. Admission is free and there will be live music and free food, so be sure to arrive early. Note that this show contains adult content, and children under the age of 16 will not be allowed inside.

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Tenth season of Lyric Theater opens

For most St. Olaf students, fall break is an opportunity to sleep, shirk homework and put a semester’s worth of stress in the background for a well-deserved long weekend. Not so for the 37 singers and six members of the orchestra involved in this year’s fall opera, “Die Fledermaus” (German for “The Bat”). Since the opera was scheduled to run Oct. 19-22, they spent the break rehearsing all day and putting together the set and lighting to turn Urness Recital Hall into a 1920s party.

“Die Fledermaus” marked the first show in this year’s St. Olaf Lyric Theater season. Audience members can always expect quality from the Lyric Theater, but 2016-2017 also marks a special occasion, as it is the tenth anniversary of the St. Olaf Lyric Theater season.

The program has been an important source of high-quality opera and musical productions, opera creation residencies, world premieres and improvised opera. It has also served as a training ground for student singers, composers, conductors, directors, pianists, instrumentalists, choreographers, costumers and lighting designers. This production is the latest of nearly 30 put on by the Lyric Theater.

“Although we had been sporadically producing Lyric Theater productions before 2006, Janis Hardy [a former St. Olaf music professor] and I decided to create an entire Lyric Theater season that would cover all three semesters and elevate courses like Music 267 [Advanced Acting for the Lyric Stage] to full-blown productions,” music professor and director of the Lyric Theater season James McKeel said. “In ten years we went from a blip on the Lyric Theater scene to being one of the regional leaders in terms of lyric theater offerings for students.”

As for the operetta chosen to introduce the tenth season of Lyric Theater, “Die Fledermaus” was written in 1874 by Johann Strauss II (with libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée) and debuted that year in Vienna. The show is a farcical comedy centered around a wealthy man with a short temper and love of pranks, Gabriel von Eisenstein, and his long-suffering wife Rosalinde.

In the opening act, Eisenstein prepares to go to jail for eight days after insulting a civil servant – but his good friend (and a frequent object of his pranks) Dr. Falke shows up and invites him to go to a party hosted by the Russian prince Orlofsky instead. Eisenstein is glad to sneak away. Little does he know, however, that Dr. Falke has a plan for revenge, inviting Rosalinde to the party dressed up as a Hungarian countess to observe her husband’s actions. Hilarity ensues, and the plot drags supporting characters from chambermaids to jailers into the joke. The operetta has been performed numerous times over the years and adapted into several silent films and television specials.

The strength of the St. Olaf music program made this production of “Die Fledermaus” something special. Because of the amount of talented people who auditioned back in the spring of 2016, the show was able to feature two alternating casts. One cast performed on Oct. 19 and 21 and the other performed on Oct. 20 and 22. When not singing a main role, cast members joined the already robust chorus. This resulted in great power during songs featuring the entire cast. Everyone was very well-cast and performed their parts well.

Another unique feature of the production (and a good move) was a change in setting. Rather than 19th century Europe, the characters relocated to 1920s New York City. The backdrop depicted a very opulent sitting room, which reinforced the setting, as did the detailed costumes – imagine flapper dresses and well-cut suits galore.

The only weaknesses in the show stemmed from the pacing of the plot. The third act was the strongest by far, full of comedic relief inherent in drunken after-party shenanigans and each character realizing something new. It features Rosalinde singing about scratching Eisenstein’s eyes out and divorcing him. What’s not to love? The first act was also a very good set-up, featuring several great solos for Adele the chambermaid. However, the second act definitely dragged a little and felt longer than it needed to be. It seemed that several songs could have been cut and the show would still be fine.

Yet there is no denying that “Die Fledermaus” provided a pleasant opportunity for audiences to experience the talent St. Olaf has to offer. From the skilled comedic acting all around, to the high notes cranked out by Rosalinde (Myrtle Lemon ’17/Samantha Noonan ’17) and Adele the chambermaid (Erica Hoops ’18), to the talent of the student orchestra and the effort put forth by all created a spectacle to remember.

The Lyric Theater will continue its tenth season with an opera-creation residency with Prairie Creek School during Interim and the world premiere of a student opera, “The End of Saro” by Jack Langdon ’17.

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“Fuddy Meers” opens theater department season

The St. Olaf Theater Department kicked off its 2016-2017 season with a production of “Fuddy Meers” in Haugen Theater. The show ran from Oct. 7 to Oct. 9 and sold out three of its five performances. Between the well-written script by David Lindsay-Abaire, the skilled performances by the actors, the beautiful set design and the direction of guest-artist Randy Reyes, the captivating show served as a clear example of the power that good theater can hold over an audience.

Claire (Tara Maloney ’19), the protagonist of “Fuddy Meers,” is a painfully cheery woman. At the beginning of the play, she wakes up to discover from her husband Richard (Ian Sutherland ’18) that she has “psychogenic amnesia,” which means that she forgets her life story every day – everything from her name to her family. The play chronicles one of those days, and introduces us to a variety of strange characters. This includes: Kenny (Ash Willison ’17), Claire’s perpetually stoned son; the Limping Man (Chaz Mayo ’18), who claims Richard is trying to kill Claire and takes her away to the home of her mother Gertie (Christine Menge ’18); and the Limping Man’s puppet-wielding sidekick Millet (Will Ibele ’18). All of these characters come with plenty with odd quirks, unclear motives and dramatic backstories to keep a viewer’s brain whirring.

The script itself is weird in the best way. As the plot twists and turns, the play’s ability to keep everything in order and foreshadow even the most oddball events becomes more and more remarkable. The script takes the audience for a ride and manages to do so even as Claire’s world crashes down around her. As she uncovers the truth about her past, her world grows increasingly complex.

One interesting aspect of the production was the fact that the theater department brought in an outside director. Reyes, a 1999 Juilliard graduate, is a big name in the Twin Cities theater scene. Currently the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts – a Minneapolis Asian-American theater and taiko company – Reyes also served as artistic director for “The Strange Capers” and the theater-in-education director at the Guthrie. He has worked as an actor, director and theater educator everywhere from the NYU Graduate Acting Program to the Seattle Children’s Theatre. His directorial talent showed, and he and the rest of the directing and design crew were able to create a show that will likely stay with the audience for a long time.

The characters and plot provided by the script also gave the actors a lot to work with, and they delivered. Many of the characters have distinctive vocal tics and patterns that are crucial to the plot or reveal some aspect of the play. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Mayo’s Limping Man – who has a lisp in addition to a limp in one leg, a scarred-up ear, and a blind eye – and in Menge’s Gertie. Gertie, it is revealed, suffered a stroke and is now unable to form coherent sentences (the play’s title actually comes from her pronunciation of “funny mirrors”), yet this does not stop Menge from conveying her thoughts and motivations with great skill. In addition, the distinction Ibele made between the voices he used for Millet and his puppet was impressive, and the guarded way in which Sutherland approached his dialogue as Richard stood out, especially as Richard loses his temper at various points throughout the play.

Physical acting was also a key feature of the play, as evidenced by the manner in which Willison slouched her way through her portrayal of Kenny and Mayo’s nicely consistent limp. Overall, “Fuddy Meers” was well-cast and chock full of talented actors who lent humor, poignancy, desperation and power to the play at all the right times.

In addition, the play simply looked beautiful. The initial set design was sparse, consisting of no backdrop and a mat on the floor painted sporadically blue and resembling the sky, or perhaps the ocean. When the lights were down, glow-in-the dark spots on the floor really brought the sky resemblance home. Other set pieces were mounted on wheels and rolled around as scenes changed; a headboard became the front of a car, a kitchen counter turned around into a cellar wall. This simplicity lent a special beauty and supplemented the onstage chaos without upstaging it.

Also, the lighting shifted throughout the show to perfectly capture the mood of each scene, and the pink wave of light moving behind the actors combined with various sound effects to signify Claire’s occasional flashbacks were a nice touch.

“Fuddy Meers” proved to be a dynamic kick-off to the St. Olaf theater department season. The department’s next show will be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which will play in Kelsey Theater from Nov. 10-13 and 18-19.

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Faculty in Focus: Professor James May

o understand Professor of Classics and current Kenneth O. Bjork Distinguished Professor James May, it certainly helps to understand Cicero. A prominent Roman orator, Cicero lived from 106 BCE to 43 BCE. His theories on the art of rhetoric, his speeches and other works have proven hugely influential to important figures, ranging from St. Augustine to John Adams. For much of his life, May has studied this man and the rhetoric he used, and has been inspired by and the Latin and Greek he spoke. This is May’s 40th and final year at St. Olaf; when he leaves, the college will be losing a dynamic professor, as well as a former Provost and Dean who served from 2002-2011.

Before all of his contributions to classical studies and St. Olaf College, May grew up in a single-mother home in eastern Ohio. His exposure to and interest in Latin started early and never wavered, as he started reciting Latin as an altar boy around age six. He started studying the language in junior high, continued in high school and quickly decided his profession.

“When we read the first ‘In Catilinam’ oration [a widely studied speech in which Cicero denounces Catiline, a conspirator against the Roman government, in the Roman senate], I just thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” May said. “When I was able to read Cicero in the original Latin and see how eloquent he could be and learn about rhetorical devices, I got so excited I thought ‘I want to be a Latin teacher.’”

May went to college at Kent State University, earned a Bachelor of Science in Education in English and Latin and went on to earn a Ph.D. in classics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. May was partly driven to be a professor at the encouragement of Kent State professors who saw his gifts in Latin and Greek. He came to St. Olaf in the fall of 1977 immediately after earning his degree. Before this, he had never ventured west of the Mississippi.

“I had never heard of St. Olaf College, but when I met people interviewing from the college, they talked to me about the college and about teaching in a way most of my other interviewers didn’t. Most were interested in giving me a second doctoral oral exam,” May said. “I remember going home and saying to my wife in North Carolina, ‘I hope this St. Olaf place calls back.’”

Thus began May’s first – and only – teaching job, and the start of a long career. May has written many articles, book chapters and textbooks, including two with fellow St. Olaf classics professor Anne Groton. His most recent book, “How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion,” was released by Princeton University Press this September. The book features selections from Cicero’s rhetorical treatises, translated by May, and uses passages from Cicero’s speeches as examples of the rhetorical devices and skills discussed. It has been heavily promoted by its publishers, in part because of its release in conjunction with the 2016 presidential election. As a result, May has been interviewed by radio stations in New Hampshire and Detroit, and been asked to write blog entries about what Cicero would advise going into a debate or an argument. The goal of the book was to popularize the ancient art of rhetoric for a modern audience, and so far it has succeeded.

“The thing about this is there are only so many ways that you can persuade people,” May said. “The Greeks basically figured it out; everything since then has been some sort of development of their thought or so forth. The basic premises haven’t changed and won’t change, and the tactics that were useful in antiquity are still relevant today.”

Now that May is wrapping up his final year, he will have more time for his many hobbies – from woodworking to restoring antique tractors. Yet he said he will miss many things about teaching – partially the rhythm of the academic calendar, but especially getting to introduce new students to the classics. He thinks St. Olaf students are “great human beings,” and also highly esteems the department he has worked in for 40 years.

“I feel really privileged to have a great career at St. Olaf and to be a member of a department like ours,” May said. “It’s one of the best, most highly recognized classics departments in the country for undergraduate education. All classicists in the country know about St. Olaf because of the work we’ve done together. I’ve been privileged to work with my colleagues and build what we’ve built, and I hope that it will continue long after I’m gone.”

In his honor, the classics department will host an annual James M. May Endowed Lecture in Classics beginning on March 27, 2017. The topic will be “Isocrates and Cicero,” and it will serve as a fitting tribute for May and his contributions as a professor and administrator.

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Debate more comedic than political

The first debate between presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump aired on Monday, Sept. 25. The Pause was packed with students at the viewing event planned by the Political Awareness Committee (PAC), as were other viewing parties across the nation. NBC reporter Savannah Guthrie kicked off the debate by mentioning the expected viewership, which had the potential to rival that of the Super Bowl. This possibility was presented as a positive sign that America is a politically engaged country. Indeed, the final viewer count was record-breaking: 84 million people tuned in, making this the most-watched debate in American history. But I would argue that this number doesn’t signify the United States’ political engagement or patriotism. Perhaps I’m just overly pessimistic, but I believe the large viewership for this debate is yet another sign of how far this presidential campaign has drifted from the political realm into the realm of entertainment.

To be fair, this election has not been truly centered around politics from the very beginning. I don’t remember much serious commentary about Donald Trump’s candidacy back in June 2015. Similarly, there has been very little serious discussion concerning his comments about immigration and what it might mean if he were to actually become the president. I do, however, remember the fixation of the media on Trump’s personal life. Along with this non-political focus was the general disbelief that he would advance very far in the election, resulting in dismissal of and jokes about his candidacy. The media focused on Trump’s outlandish comments rather than their possible future implications for Americans. This surface level coverage isn’t helped by the fact that Trump is an established figure in American culture, for better or for worse. The same can be said of Hillary Clinton, who has spent several decades in the public eye. Most Americans felt that they knew where they stood with both Trump and Clinton. The media has taken advantage of this fact, choosing to neglect the candidate’s actual positions on the issues. Instead the media continuously drums up the entertainment value of each candidate to draw attention.

As the unprecedented debate viewing numbers show, the entertainment value has not failed the media even in the twilight of the 2016 election. The reality is that we are in the throes of a political atmosphere that prioritizes short sound bites that are easy to turn into memes over civic engagement. To be fair, this is incredibly easy when our candidates do things like attack a sitting senator for being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. For this very reason professionals exist who are supposed to explain the news and its consequences to the American people. With each new election cycle, these professionals seem to take it upon themselves to present more and more infotainment – with the result that American voters are more interested in laughing at the election or listening for the next cringeworthy statement than being informed members of the populace. The extremely polarizing candidates have made the 2016 presidential election a laughing stock.

The impulse to make politics (and politicians) funny is not something to be condemned. For instance, a multitude of fantastic political commentary has come from “Saturday Night Live” and other late night comedy shows. I must confess I do love a good meme. Yet I’m still troubled by the way comedic political discourse seems to have bled over into newspapers, television outlets and the like. The fact that the work of “real” journalists has defaulted to mere entertainment for readers and viewers is a problem. If emphasizing the comedic value of candidates is what it takes to hold debates with record viewing numbers, and if these record numbers are what we prioritize in politics today, then so be it. However, if we’re going to turn campaigns and politicians into jokes through the media we can’t pretend that our investment in said campaigns, politicians, or the election in general runs deeper than the jokes themselves.

Dylan Walker ’18 ( is from Mountain Grove, Mo. They major in classics with a concentration in film studies and women’s and gender studies.

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