More than 2,400 years ago, the Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote “Lysistrata,” an antiwar satire in which a group of women endeavor to stop the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from their husbands. The story has staying power; modern-day adaptations on the stage (“Lysistrata Jones”) and the screen (Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”) have kept the outline while grappling with contemporary gender politics.
In the hip-hop adaptation “ms. estrada,” the Q Brothers Collective (“The Bomb-itty of Errors,” “Othello: The Remix”) aim to do just that, setting the story on a campus oh so sensitive to microaggressions and cultural appropriation. But this lively production, now at the Flea Theater, sets its comic sights on too many targets.
The plot loosely follows the original: Instead of Greece, we have Acropolis University, and instead of war we have the Greek Games, a display of testosterone that has frat brothers compete in beer pong and other boozy amusements. Our heroine is Liz Estrada (Malena Pennycook), an undergraduate who starts a “re-vagina-lution” in which her fellow coeds deny the boys sex until the Games are canceled.
Joining Liz are her roommates Cali (Madeline Mahoney), Marina (Pearl Shin) and Limpita (Caturah Brown), working their tropes as ditsy blonde, vegan hipster and sassy black girl. A male gender-studies student (Jonathon Ryan) and the casually bigoted university dean, along with the girls’ brew-chugging boyfriends, are the well-meaning misogynists confused by the new reality, while the big donor Harry Stefani (pronounced cheekily close to Aristophanes) nefariously seeks to quash Liz’s movement.
From the show-opening, tongue-in-cheek trigger warning to Liz’s hashtag-branded revolution, “ms. estrada” positions itself as a knowing response to the current moment with a decidedly millennial spin.
But even when the show’s present-day updates are shrewd, its comic ideas are haphazardly flung about. “It’s a show about feminism, there’s a lot to unpack,” one lyric goes, and it’s true — too much, in fact. The show fails to focus its satire.
Michelle Tattenbaum’s direction does make for a fast-paced, rainbow-bright exercise in camp. But the spirited choreography, rhymed dialogue and zippy songs, when paired with a stream of sexual euphemisms and tasteless jokes, sometimes create an unsavory contrast. Quips about workplace sexual assault and #MeToo come off as trivializing.
The cast, made up of the Flea’s Bats troupe of young actors, is earnest and committed to the cartoonish production, and John McDermott’s set, with a D.J. perched above columns, effectively crosses the campus quad with the club.
Playful but crude, flirting with irreverence, “ms. estrada” promises smart sex for the 21st century but mostly ends up being, well, a tease.
Through April 28 at the Flea Theater, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, theflea.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.