- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

Fresh. Bright. Fun. Not the words usually associated with Greek tragedy.

Yet the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s staging of Euripides‘ “Ion,” under the joyful direction of Ethan McSweeny, is more sunny than sorrow-struck.

Those who associate Greek drama with much rending of togas and keening over butchered kin may find themselves caught charmingly off-guard by such light touches as the Chorus portrayed as a gaggle of nosy and tongue-wagging girl tourists — and a deus ex machina appearance by the majestically winged goddess Athena (Colleen Delany), who happily bangs a tambourine like a Hellenic member of the Partridge Family during the musical finale.

But wait, there’s more: a happy ending.

“Ion” concludes not with a pileup of bloodstained bodies, but with the catharsis of laughter, song and reunited families. This modern staging of a 2,500-year-old play provides a Parthenon of pleasures in a mere 90 minutes.

“Ion” deals with the themes of identity and belonging. And for all its nimbleness, it is a mature work that questions authority as well as the infallibility of the gods we worship.

The play’s hero doesn’t even have a name at the beginning; he defines himself by the work he has done all his life as an attendant at the revered Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi. The two words at the temple state “Know Yourself,” but young Ion (Keith Eric Chappelle) does not know who he is. Nor does he know his parentage, only the identity he believes the god Apollo bestowed upon him.

And Apollo never lies or is wrong — or does he, is he?

In the course of a single day, Ion discovers his identity when the foreign-born king Xuthus (Sam Tsoutsouvas) comes to Delphi to ask whether he will ever have a child, while his wife, Creusa (Lisa Harrow) wants to know about the son she bore and deserted. The oracle answers the king’s question first, bringing him elation and the queen’s volcanic rage. After Creusa strong-arms Apollo into responding to her, Ion is forced to reshape his sense of self.

Creusa’s desperate act — and Miss Harrow’s harrowing and electrifying recounting of what happened to her long ago — are the parts of “Ion” that contain the terrifying, larger-than-life emotions of classic tragedy. Otherwise, the play is concerned with the very earthy and human questions of “Who am I?” and “How can I believe in the unknowable?”

Even the gods show capricious sides.

Hermes (Aubrey Deeker) is a jocular, antsy messenger who presents Creusa’s story as a playful puppet show. The Chorus members (the excellent Rebecca Baxter, Lise Bruneau, Kate Debelack, Laiona Michelle and Patricia Santomasso) are soothsayers with a taste for vengeance. But they’re also a bunch of awestruck and overscheduled travelers to Delphi who use the sacred site as an impromptu picnic ground.

There is something Obamaesque about Mr. Chappelle’s charismatic and poised turn as Ion. Both are men who came from nowhere to become the leaders of great nations. According to Greek legend, Ion is the ancestor of all Athenians. Like the new president, he stands at the advent of something new and asks the people to believe in him.

Knowledge can sometimes be a terrible thing. On one hand, Ion at last knows who he is. On the other hand, this knowledge causes him to doubt everything he holds true. The gods, our leaders and lawmakers, aren’t perfect — and you can’t really know them any more than you truly know yourself.

★★★★

WHAT: “Ion” by Euripides

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 12.

TICKETS: $23.50 to $79.75

PHONE: 202/547-1122

WEB SITE: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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