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The Persians

a Tragedy
CATEGORY : DRAMA
by Aeschylus (adapted by Ellen McLaughlin)

COMPANY : Theatre in the Square [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Theatre in the Square [WEBSITE]
ID# 2416

SHOWING : August 12, 2007 - September 23, 2007

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

"The Persians" tells of Persia's unexpected defeat in war at Athens —- from the perspective of loved ones left behind.

Written by the poet Aeschylus, it was first performed in 472 B.C. The Theatre in the Square version is an adaptation by Ellen McLaughlin. The show is directed by actor-playwright John Ammerman.

"It's the oldest surviving play in Western literature," said the character, Chairman, to a hushed crowd last Sunday.

Dressed in a shimmery floor-length cloak and turban, Chairman, played by Maurice Ralston, pulled back the stage curtain to unveil Persia's opulence.

Sketches of victorious warriors are on the backdrop of the gold-toned set. And blood red sand flows from a symbolic hourglass to show the passage of time.

Later in the story the sand covers the stage to suggest the bloodshed from war.

"It's theatrical and timely," said Jessica West, artistic associate. "I'm pretty sure people will be able to relate because of the [Iraq] war we're in."


CAST & CREW LIST
Director John Ammerman
General/Admiral John Basiulis
State Marianne Fraulo
Atossa Jen Harper
Attendant Tony Larkin
Religion/Treasury Marshall Marden
Prologue/Chairman Maurice Ralston
Herald Rich Remedios
Xerxes Travis Smith
Justice Clint Thornton
Darius Gary Yates
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production
REVIEWS

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Echoes Through History
by Dedalus
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
4.0
It would be so easy to write an entire column on Aeschylus’ “The Persians” without once mentioning what this particular production brings to the table.

For example, I could discuss the parallels with contemporary politics, how the plot of a son overreaching militarily to avenge a father has direct analogs in today’s Mess-o’-potamia. I could discuss the theatrical history of the piece, how, being the earliest extant play in existence, a direct evolutionary line can be drawn from its first performance to the opening of Gerard Butler in “300” (and don’t you just love that irony?). I could discuss how this play is not so far removed from the times when theatre was merely stylized worship, when the rituals of the temple developed into the paradigms of the stage, how (and here comes another irony) this earliest piece departs from the standard depiction of Gods and their relationships (and relations) with man to depict an event within the memories of the playwright and his audience. I could even delve into the cultural and religious aspects of Classical Greece, how it is sometimes difficult for our post-enlightenment minds to grasp the seeming contradiction of Man’s Fate being in the hands of the Gods, but Man’s responsibility for his actions (his Free Will, if you like) being no less than what we demand today; or how the act of hubris described of Xerxes here (a makeshift bridge over the Hellespont “yoking the God of the Sea”) would come across as engineering ingenuity to a modern audience.

All these are intriguing topics for discussion, and I will gladly join in any that develop along these lines. Here, though, I want to discuss the theatricality of Greek Tragedy in general and this production in particular.

At its basic level, Greek Tragedy is stylized and ritualistic, as far removed from the realism we expect from our contemporary theatre as you can get. Highly poetic language and song are used as cautionary tales about overreaching pride and the very real,very strict dividing lines between the actions of mortals and the actions of gods. The productions that work the best today are those that employ ideas of theatricality – performance concepts that try to recreate that same awe in us that original Greek audiences felt. The best example (and one of the best productions I’ve ever seen of any play) was the Diana Rigg “Medea” from 1994, the climax of which had rusty metal walls collapsing (with the expected cacophanous din) to reveal a blood-drenched Medea gloating in her victory.

“The Persians” at Theatre in the Square adds some layers of theatricality that also work (although to a much lesser extent). Act curtains that get magically “sucked” into invisibility, Choral characters that bear an individuality absent from the script, Blood-red sand pouring constantly onto the set, presaging the inevitable collapse of the Persian Empire with its accompanying reclamation by the war-soaked desert sands – all these hide the lack of any plot (in its contemporary sense) without hiding the poetic language and larger-than-life characters and emotions on display.

To be honest, before seeing this play, I pulled out my 1970 College edition of Aeschylus to reread the script as well as the critical analyses on this particular piece. “The Persians” has the traditional “Five-Act” structure:

Act One – The Chorus enters and sets the scene (a Persian capital – Susa – emptied of its young men, a far-off war, the silence of the empty streets).

Act Two – We meet the Queen, wife of Darius, mother of Xerxes; a sense of foreboding is established as she recounts an ominous dream.

Act Three – A messenger enters and describes the disastrous (for the Persians) battle of Salamis, in which the Greek navy, by a clever ruse, utterly destroys a numerically superior force. This is by far the strongest section of the play, thanks in part to Rich Remedios’ marvelous line readings as the Herald, but also, I believe, thanks to this being essentially an “eyewitness account” by Aeschylus – it’s also the strongest section of the translation I read in preparation.

Act Four – The Queen calls forth the ghost of Darius to ask for his advice.

Act Five – The Defeated Xerxes returns home, is chastised by the chorus, and accepts his responsibility for the destruction of his armies and empire.

Five Acts of lamentations, wailings, and pleas to the Gods. Ninety Minutes of Classical Theatre, made palatable to a modern audience by its clever theatricality and its traditional/historical sense of theatre, as well as the commitment brought to the production by its talented cast (Jen Harper as the Queen, Gary Yates as Darius, Travis Smith as Xerxes, and long-time Atlanta actors Maurice Ralston, Marianne Fraulo, Narshall Marden, Clint Thornton, and John Basiulis as the Chorus of Elders).

If I have any quibbles, many of them lie with the translation by Ellen McLaughlin. According to her bio, she is more of a playwright than a Classical Greek scholar, so much of the poetry, and all of the political irony is not quite up to what I was expecting. Two of the choral odes are set to music, and they come across more as banal pop songs than as the High Strophe/Antistrophe I would expect – the words are a bit zingless, and they seem a bit out of place with the rest of the adaptation.

One of the ironies of this particular play is its balance of fact and fiction. It’s told from the point of view of the losers, but told to a still-triumphant Athenian audience. Yet, at the time of its first production, the architect of the Salamis victory, Themistocles, was out of favor, and one of Aeschylus’ goals was allegedly to restore his reputation. Yet his name does not appear anywhere in the script. Also, there is a lot of whitewashing of Darius’ career before Xerxes. Dramatically, it makes sense to make the ghost of Darius a fount of wisdom and experience and moderation to make a better contrast with the impetuous and warlike Xerxes. The problem is that a lot of Darius’ campaigns against the Greeks (including the Battle of Marathon) are conveniently overlooked. To make the modern parallel (which this production thankfully avoids), it’s as if a Shi’ite Playwright in Iraq wrote a tragedy about the current President Bush, but ignored his father’s campaign in Kuwait.

This play is an admittedly hard sell. If I say its place in theatrical history is such that you “should see it,” you’ll go running for the hills (or at least screaming for the exits). Greek Tragedy, by its nature, can be an “acquired taste.” Before we were married, Barbara and I saw Zoe Wanamaker in “Electra” in New York. I thought it was okay (not as good as “Medea” or even this production of The Persians’), but Barbara hated it, describing it as “a bunch of women rolling in the dirt and whining.” Well, yes, that’s what a lot of Greek Tragedy is. But when the women have godlike powers over their people, when they are brought low by their own human failings, and when their “whining” takes on the weight of a monarchy overthrown, a population devasted, and an empire sounding its death knell, it arouses a reaction that is quite unlike any emotional response to theatre from any other era, a reaction difficult to articulate, and even harder to share in a short overview such as this.

That being said, I really think you should see this production, especially if you have an interest in the history and evolution of theatre. You should also see it if you liked “300” and want to see what happened to the army that turned Leonidas into a pincushion – just don’t expect as many beheadings.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
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