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Ancient Greece Meets Modern Feminism in Ms. Estrada

The Q Brothers Collective collaborates with the Bats in this updated spin on Aristophanes.

Malena Pennycook (center) leads the cast of the Q Brothers Collective's ms. estrada, directed by Michelle Tattenbaum and featuring the Bats, at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)

"Microaggression," "cultural appropriation," "mansplain," "white privilege," "cis": These are just a few of the newspeak terms that have the power to trigger fits of rage and indignation in people across the political spectrum — and they all appear in ms. estrada, the hip-hop riff on Aristophanes by the Q Brothers Collective that is now making its world premiere at the Flea Theater with the Bats (the theater's young scrappy resident company). Often provocative yet always irreverent, ms. estrada lends a whole new beat to this story of sexual deprivation as a form of protest.

It is based on Lysistrata, the 411 BC comedy that is undoubtedly the funniest thing to come out of the Peloponnesian War. The Q Brothers transpose the plot to a college campus, the chosen cultural battlefield of the American upper middle class in 2018.

Liz (Malena Pennycook) and Brian (Jonathon Ryan) face off as Ms. Spencer (Jenna Krasowski) looks on in ms. estrada.
(© Hunter Canning)

Elizabeth Estrada (Malena Pennycook) is a new arrival at Acropolis U, but she's ready to shake things up. While taking a women's studies course taught by Ms. Spencer (a Tina Fey-ish Jenna Krasowski), she comes to the conclusion that the Greek Games are problematic. The frat bros of Tappa Kegga Alpha look forward to these annual beer-pong and flip-cup tournaments, but where they see gleeful intoxication, she sees only toxic masculinity. Acropolis alum and Greek Games founder Harry Stefani (a menacingly slick Michael Ortiz) threatens to pull funding from the school if anything happens to his beloved games. Nevertheless, Liz persists in leading her fellow Womxn (the "x" is a political statement, not a typo) to abstain from sex with their TKA boyfriends until the games are abolished.

Like the Q Brothers' excellent Othello: The Remix, the script is presented entirely in old-school hip-hop rhyming verse. The lyrics are clever and surprisingly dense, considering such song titles as "Sex in Your Face" and "Kick It in the Dick." The Brothers' most astute satire is saved for our funny relationship with language itself: During the song "Re-vagina-lution," the characters have an entire discussion of intersectionality and the exclusionary nature of labels, eventually landing on the more inclusive term "Re-vagina-queer-those-facing-persecution-Trans-WOCs-intersex-o-lution," which feels like the spiritual descendent of σπερμαγοραιολεκιθολαχανοπώλιδες (a word Aristophanes invented for his original play that roughly translates to "seed-market-vegetable-selling women").

Miss Tiffcock (Monique St. Cyr) leads the TKA boys in a yoga class in ms. estrada.
(© Hunter Canning)

Director Michelle Tattenbaum matches the Brothers' cheekiness with her animated, high-energy staging: Just try to keep a straight face as the frat bros struggle through a yoga class that involves the use of giant blue balls. You also get a laugh out of Rokafella's choreography, which entails repetitive motions performed in a circle, like a tribal dance to summon beer instead of rain.

John McDermott's many-doored and multilevel set easily facilitates the rapid deployment of actors while also conjuring collegiate Georgian architecture. Robin I. Shane's costumes make us cringe at the memory of a time when it was acceptable to stagger out of the dorm in basketball shorts and a hoodie. Oona Curley brings rap concert glitz to the stage with flashy yet functional lighting. Sound designer David Ferdinand amplifies the performers in a tinny, artificial manner that isn't ideal for a musical in such an intimate space, but works well for this rap battle of the sexes. It also ensures that the lyrics are always perfectly intelligible.

Flawless diction from the company facilitates our understanding. And since most of the Bats are fresh out of college, there's an authenticity to the piece. Jonathon Ryan gives a hilarious performance as Brian, a social justice crusader armored in argyle. Ben Schrager is fabulously arrogant as Dean Jaffe. As the school ditz, Cali, Madeline Mahoney delivers a performance that will have you in stitches. With the piercing eyes of John Brown, Pennycock leads the cast with real revolutionary fervor. Her physical and vocal commitment to her maniacally driven character is reminiscent of Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It may look absurd to us, but everything is grounded in real stakes for her.

Malena Pennycook, Pearl Shin, and Caturah Brown star in ms. estrada at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)

The humor of ms. estrada relies mostly on silly names, clever wordplay, and improbable situations, all of which have been essential to this story for over 2,400 years. In Aristophanes, the Q Brothers have found a forefather in their zest for language and quest to mock convention.