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Warm Earth, Cold Beds? 

Theater preview: The Boycott

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Global warming makes front-page news almost every day now. Al Gore raised the level of public awareness when he laid out the case in last year's surprise hit documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The sharp rise in carbon dioxide emissions has increased temperatures worldwide, resulting in disappearing glaciers and polar ice, disrupted rainfall and ocean-current patterns, and species and habitat loss. As ski resorts suffer, snowmobiles sit idle, and ice fishing shanties languish ashore, even Vermont legislators have put climate change atop their agenda.

Could a raunchy, 2400-year-old Greek sex comedy hold the key to a solution? Well, not literally. But in The Boycott, actress Kathryn Blume has penned a one-woman show that proposes a tactic straight from Aristophanes' Lysistrata. Women go on a sex strike to pressure political leaders - the fictional self-absorbed President, in particular - into taking action. If the planet gets hot, the men will get naught.

The Boycott is a one-woman, multi-character play-within-a-play. The lead character is an actress named Kathy. As the opening monologue explains, the show contains the "big, splashy Hollywood comedy" that Kathy wants to make, but can't because she's "an obscure performance artist from Vermont." So she acts out all the parts of her dream cast, starting with Susan Sarandon as First Lady Lyssa Stratton and George Clooney as the President.

The movie's plot is a modern spin on Aristophanes' ancient "ruckus-raising sex farce," as Blume describes it. Inspired by an ailing rainforest frog, the First Lady launches a sex boycott in order to convince her hubby to combat global warming. Acting as the narrator, Kathy envisions consequences of the Eros moratorium more far-reaching than any Aristophanes described. For example: What happens to the poor Viagra executive?

The title character of the original Lysistrata rallied the women of Athens and Sparta to keep their temples closed until the men laid down their swords. In the process, she became one of the legendary ladies of literature. Laden with "good Greek dick jokes," as Blume says, the play was originally performed at raucous annual festivals honoring Dionysius. The actors, all men, sported giant leather phalluses protruding from short tunics. But behind the genital jesting lay a serious message. Aristophanes saw that the protracted Peloponnesian War had destroyed Athens' Golden Age. It was his country's Vietnam.

This isn't Blume's first crack at modernizing Lysistrata, or the first issue with which she's associated it. For a decade, like her counterpart "Kathy" in the play, she toyed with the idea of crafting a modern movie version. During the run-up to the Iraq war, Blume worked actively on a script. Then she heard that a New York group, Theater Artists Against War, was planning a day of action on March 3, 2003. Her screenplay wasn't going to be ready in time for a public reading.

An email exchange with a friend about how they could participate led to "one of those 'Yes, and . . .' conversations, which spiraled out of control," Blume remembers. "Within basically 24 hours, we came up with this idea of doing as many readings of Lysistrata as we could, both to raise money for humanitarian aid in Iraq and to raise awareness and provide people an avenue of opposition."

The idea caught on fire virtually overnight. Blume found herself at the center of the "first-ever worldwide act of theatrical dissent," as the Lysistrata Project came to call itself. In just a few months, more than 1000 readings had been organized for the appointed day, in 59 countries and all 50 states. Included were unlikely locations such as Serbia and Cambodia, and ones where people actually put themselves at risk, such as China, Cuba and a Kurdish refugee camp in Greece.

Blume's moment in the spotlight included star-studded readings and "massive international press," she says. But the frenzied beehive of activity soon died down, and she found her life quiet again. At the time, she was living in New York City. The epicenter of the theater universe, it didn't offer Blume many outlets for her other passion, environmentalism.

"Here I am with these raging ambitions: I want to be a huge actor and have a great career and save the world and clean up everything, and I'm not doing either one, and I feel absolutely helpless," Blume recalls. But the Lysistrata Project felt like a turning point. She had watched an ephemeral email turn into global engagement. Her email.

So Blume wrote about the whirlwind she had just stirred, creating a one-woman show called The Accidental Activist. "It's the story of somebody learning to take action in her life," she explains. She eventually took the piece on tour to 30 cities and did a full run last year at the respected regional Kitchen Theater in Ithaca, New York.

The logistics of Blume's extended tour led to a profound personal change: relocating her home base permanently to Charlotte, Vermont. Blume has been married for 12 years to Mark Nash, artistic director of the Vermont Stage Company, but the couple had been doing the two-career, two-city commuter marriage. "Go figure - living with my husband is actually preferable than being apart all the time!" Blume says with a smile.

After The Accidental Activist, Blume thought about returning to her Lysistrata movie script. But her recent experiences had made her less sanguine about big-screen dreams. "The truth is," Blume admits, "I don't know anyone in Hollywood, and the likelihood of my getting a screenplay written, sold and produced is fairly low."

Still, the success of The Accidental Activist bolstered her confidence about creating and performing solo stage work. So into the creative soup for Blume's next project went her old friend Lysistrata, the frustrated movie-making fantasy, a gift for solo performance and a return to what she calls her long-standing "heart issue": the environment. Blume's twin passions for performing and the planet date back at least as far as college, where she designed her own custom major in theater and environmental studies.

Although global warming is new on many people's radar screens, Blume recalls an early flash of awakening. While spending the summer in Seattle nearly 20 years ago, she read an article in the local paper that envisioned the city under 20 feet of water. (Sea levels would be raised this much by the melting of Greenland's glaciers or substantial polar ice.) "It was a moment of 'Wow, I don't want to live long enough to see that,'" Blume recalls. The image of water creeping up the sides of the Space Needle particularly disturbed her.

Today, Blume is most alarmed by scientists who estimate that we have just 10 years to reverse course and avert catastrophe. It's overwhelming "to be given that short a time frame for a task that's so Herculean, and that calls for such a complete and utter 180 turnaround in the whole way we live our lives," she says.

To research her show, Blume began looking at every news and weather report "through the lens of 'We're facing worldwide ecological collapse,'" she says. The prep proved emotionally difficult. "It was really this process of reading and crying and writing," Blume confesses. Two comfort activities, eating dark chocolate and teaching yoga, became her "psychic reset buttons."

Out of Blume's "grief for the world" emerged a fresh and funny show. She acknowledges that the central character of Kathy is "a somewhat more highly dramatized version of me." Both Kathys are experiencing a "chronic, weepy panic" about global warming, and they feel a desperate need to communicate that knowledge with the world.

But the show isn't all about her. "The hard part about doing solo work is that you don't want to be self-indulgent," Blume reflects. "It's not therapy. It's not about you spreading your emotional ya-yas all over everybody . . . The question is what's going to tell the story best."

Director Jason Jacobs has been Blume's friend, colleague and collaborator since their college days. He's currently helping her hone the piece. Jacobs believes the choice of first-person perspective gives the audience an immediate point of entry. It's "that very human, individual response" missing from statistics-heavy news stories, he says.

"It makes grappling with the issue easier to deal with if you know you're not the only one who feels that way," says Blume. "I didn't want to let people off the hook by just telling them a fictitious story. I don't want to put them too much on the hook by saying, 'And here's what you have to do about it.' But I felt like, if I told a completely fictitious and highly farcical story, it would allow them to escape a little too far."

So Blume frames The Boycott as Kathy's story. In a similar way, Al Gore's personal narrative shapes An Inconvenient Truth. In the film, Gore confesses to his sense of failing to communicate what he has known for 30 years. Both Kathy and Gore reveal themselves as vulnerable storytellers. Jacobs thinks both narrators share an underlying struggle: "How do we do something before we allow the despair to come in?"

That vulnerability gives the message wings. The engaging, sincere messenger holds audience members' attention, whether they're laughing at Kathy's blue-balls jokes or gasping at Gore's charts that show levels of greenhouse gases.

Blume aims to reach as wide an audience as she can. She's morphing her original dream of a Lysistrata film into a smaller production for the cinematic medium du jour: YouTube. Blume will wield a camera on stage, have one in the house and post the results.

Gore's "slide show" grossed $40 million in worldwide box office, without any references to dicks. (Unless you count Cheney.) Maybe Blume has a shot at stardom, after all.

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