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Even before the doors opened, a line of hopeful spectators snaked around the corner of Fulton Street, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on March 3. They came to make love, not war.

They got comedy, heavy on wiener jokes and wiggling balloon codpieces, courtesy of an eye-popping cast of lusty celebrity performers from Broadway and cinema including Mercedes Ruehl, Kathleen Chalfant, F. Murray Abraham, Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon. And the audience loved it.

With Ruehl ("Fisher King," "Married to the Mob") in the title role gleefully flinging out lines like, "Close your legs and think of Greece," Monday night’s reading of "Lysistrata," the ancient, innuendo-laden comedy by Aristophanes in which women refuse to put out until their warring husbands sign a peace treaty, roused the packed audience to a standing ovation.

It was the climax to a day of more than 1,000 readings worldwide meant to protest the Bush administration going to war in Iraq.

Performances like "Footloose" co-star Lori Singer’s sex-starved plea to Lysistrata for a chance to "air out" her "wool" - "I just have to spread it out on the bed and let it rest a while" - meant for a wink-wink nudge-nudge kind of evening as the actors, who only rehearsed once, reveled in the Cliffs Notes-meets-Farrelly Brothers adaptation by director Ellen McLaughlin.

Park Sloper Debbie Schwartz, with daughter Nadia Tykulsker, 15, and friend Hudson Williams-Eynon, 15, said they came for the anti-war message, not the star-gazing. They weren’t fazed by the plethora of penis punchlines, either.

"It was great," said Tykulsker, a self-described "hardcore" peace booster who also went to the Feb. 15 anti-war demonstration in Manhattan. "It was so funny and really important to show that the peace movement can laugh as well as send a message."

Schwartz, a museum employee who threw $40 into the Lysistrata Project donation bucket, said, "For me, it’s so nice to see this particular movement have so much cultural life to it."

At the souvenir table, volunteer Allison Ronis agreed. "I chose to do it before I knew the cast," said the full-time stage manager. "It was like a bonus when I found out that there would be stars doing it."

"What can we do as actors?" asked Sedgwick, sipping red wine at the BAM cafe’s post-show party, husband and co-star Bacon at her elbow.

"People make fun of [actors]. They say we shouldn’t be political pundits," said Sedgwick, "but this is helping in the way we know how."

At the pre-show press conference, a more vocal Bacon said he was inspired to participate after seeing actor-director Tim Robbins speak at an early anti-war demonstration in Boston.

Abraham, an Oscar winner for 1984’s "Amadeus," said he hoped the administration would take a family oriented approach to the war.

"I’m not against the president, just his policies," Abraham told GO Brooklyn. "If they had more invested in terms of their own family - I’m asking that they think in those terms. My two brothers are dead in a military cemetery in Texas. My God. And I think that’s enough. You have to do what you can."

The story of the Lysistrata Project’s conception and birth is quickly becoming the stuff of theater legend. Two months ago, actor Kathryn Blume, of Greenpoint, and co-founder Sharron Bower, conceived the idea to organize an anti-war project for theater artists and chose a staged reading of "Lysistrata." One Web site, www.lysistrataproject.com, and many e-mails later, they had a worldwide phenomenon on their hands, with actors and non-actors joining in from Cambodia to Iceland.

Blume said that after she and Bower recoup their expenses, proceeds from the event will go to two humanitarian charities providing aid to Iraqis: the milk and medicine for Iraqi children program of Madre and EPIC, the Education for Peace in Iraq Center.

Blume told GO Brooklyn, "’Lysistrata’ captures attention because sex sells. The play is over 2,000 years old and it’s still funny and painfully timely. It’s about gender politics, control of public funds and war - they are all still very much an issue."

Said Bower, "We are not advocating this strategy [of withholding sex] - unless your husband’s name is George or Saddam. But it is about a creative way to end a war, and this is what this situation calls for."

The BAM event came together in just a few weeks, making it "the fastest event in the history of BAM," said BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins. Funding to defray production costs came from BAM trustee and mega-developer Bruce Ratner and his family.

In addition to the reading, Brooklyn talent filled the balance of the program. Pre-show, Lava acrobats, clad in red-and-silver bodysuits balanced, twisted and leaped through rings. Percussion group Raining Grace also performed. Clowns and acrobats from Park Slope’s Cirque Boom circulated in the lobby while musicians from the International WOW Company, dressed in vintage wear, sang Depression-era songs. The Amy Kohn Band, led by Park Sloper Kohn, accompanied the reading.

Even with all this local representation, Cirque Boom’s crafty clown Anna Banana stole the show. Using a strategically placed balloon pump, Banana’s on-stage construction of the menfolk’s air-filled members netted roars from the audience.

Actor-mime Bill Irwin admitted it was hard maneuvering on stage with five men in pumped up penile harnesses. There was a sudden and unconscious effort to keep their backsides protected and balloon shafts from touching when the men donned the strap-ons midway through the reading.

"It was weird," said Irwin, who appeared in last year’s sleeper hit, "Igby Goes Down."

"I didn’t want it to touch the music stand," he said. "It was an illuminating experience."


Additional reporting by Lisa J. Curtis.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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