- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

he spoils of war are spoiled in Aeschylus’ powerful and empathetic “The Persians,” a cautionary play staged with fiery outrage at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Aeschylus, a former soldier who lost a brother in the battle against the Persians at Marathon, does not take delight in the Greek victory over Persian invaders but issues a stern, timeless message about the dangers of pride and greed.

A short, spiky new version of the Greek tragedy (written in 472 B.C.) by Ellen McLaughlin has inspired a visually startling and aurally textured production directed by Ethan McSweeny. The running time may be 80 minutes, but the Shakespeare Theatre packs plenty of spectacle in both the show’s physical aspects and the forthright potency of Aeschylus’ descriptions of the carnage of war. These descriptions could only come from someone who saw battle at close range; they contain a harrowing beauty that grips the senses until you can nearly detect the metallic tang of blood in the air.

Though the retellings of the battle at Salamis that felled the Persian army at a hideous cost to both sides are vital and pressing, the play also contains introspective moments, including a moving account of a woman coping with the loss of a soldier and finding the world suddenly drab and inferior simply because he is not in it.

It would be a triumphant evening just to close your eyes and appreciate Aeschylus’ gift of storytelling and the glinting soundscape provided by percussionists N. Scott Robinson and Orlando Cotto and cellist Caroline Kang. But then you would miss the visual impact of Mr. McSweeny’s stark vision. The set by James Noone is a black semicircular stage that resembles a Greek amphitheater in miniature surrounded by mounds of blood-red sand. In the back is a curved diorama screen on which are projected maps, friezes, paintings and other images from antiquity. At certain points in the play, the screen is removed to reveal either a mirrored wall or blinding light grids.

A group of actors (Don Mayo, John Livingstone Rolle, David Sabin, Emery Battis, John Seidman, David Emerson Toney, Floyd King and Ed Dixon) stroll onstage in modern dress, giving audience members a brief introduction to the play, which is the oldest surviving Greek tragedy. Donning lavishly decorated robes, they become Persian counselors in an ambitious and politic chorus who ruthlessly ignite the imagination of the young King Xerxes (Erin Gann) to what they believe is certain glory on the battlefield.

“Our fate is to rule,” they roar, firm in the belief that the gods are on their side. Only Queen Atossa (Helen Carey) has misgivings, and she tells of her ominous dreams full of frightening imagery of falcons disemboweling eagles.

Her dreams come true, as there is unparalleled gore and defeat, with only a handful of survivors, among them the hollowed-out Herald (Scott Parkinson) and Atossa’s son, Xerxes. Atossa’s piteous mourning brings back the ghost of her husband, Darius (played with shivery stateliness by Ted van Griethuysen), but the counselors are too cowardly to inform him what happened. It is up to Atossa to recount the slaughter, and Miss Carey’s bold and decisive portrayal shows us what stuff great queens are made of.

“A country can only take so much,” she states, eviscerated by the idea of rebuilding from nothing.

The chorus of counselors is another matter altogether, playing an elaborate game of musical chairs, cavalierly changing their allegiances and opinions to suit the circumstances. Even their postures of deference seem insincere, and as a chorus they speak not with one voice, but with much muttering dissension in the ranks.

Aeschylus wrote “The Persians” as a searing indictment of the arrogance of a victorious, flourishing society. The Persians were once in that exalted position, he warned, and although the Athenians were enjoying a golden age, they could just as easily topple down from on high. The most essential thing about war, “The Persians” tells us, is remembrance.

***

WHAT: “The Persians” by Aeschylus

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. NW.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 21.

TICKETS: $14.25 to $71.25

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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