Thursday, May 19, 2005

Never underestimate dead white males. Especially the ones in togas. In May and June, five Greek plays will be running simultaneously in the Washington area — “Electra” at MetroStage, “Hecuba” at the Kennedy Center, “Medea” at the Washington Shakespeare Company, “Jason and the Argonauts” at Synetic Theater and “Perfectly Persephone” at Imagination Stage.

Cultural lefties who condemn the Western canon as irrelevant in our multiculti global society and hope for dead white European males to go the way of the quatrain, should consider the selections made by D.C. theater companies. These Greek (and Greek-themed) plays feature strong women — juicy roles that many say have not been trumped in 2,500 years.

“Medea is one of the ultimate roles for an actor,” says Delia Taylor, who will play the infanticide-minded royal at the Washington Shakespeare Company starting June 6. “It is something you have to build up to in your career, a part you have to almost earn. I cannot imagine doing Medea when I was just starting out. So few female characters are as powerfully written as Medea.”

If the part is sometimes considered one-dimensional, well — that’s the old double standard at work again, she believes.

“If women like Medea and Hecuba were male, they would be considered heroes,” Miss Taylor says. “But because they are women, they are known as cold-blooded murderesses. Every time I mention that I am playing Medea, someone says, ‘Oh, the woman who killed her children.’ No one brings up Jason’s behavior or his callous abandonment of her.”

Euripides (484-406 B.C.), the author of “Medea,” “Electra,” and “Hecuba,” was no smugly superior white male. He was, rather, a cave-dwelling loner who preferred contemplative solitude to the political and social gossip so dear to his fellow Athenians.

True, the tragedian was also a reputed woman-hater, perhaps smarting from at least two disastrous marriages to straying wives. Yet his plays, far from being misogynist, are instead deeply humanist studies of victims of oppression — particularly women and slaves — with whom he appears to have identified.

Royal Shakespeare Company member Lydia Leonard will play Polyxena, Hecuba’s daughter who heroically accepts her sacrificial death in “Hecuba,” which opens at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday and stars Vanessa Redgrave as the deposed queen of Troy.

“I love playing Polyxena, because she is not a sacrificial victim like Iphigenia,” says Miss Leonard. “She is a slave who is not enslaved. She has lost her identity, her family, her father, so death is not that bad to her; it is an escape.”

While Miss Leonard believes that “Hecuba” is an antiwar play with particular topical relevance in both the United Kingdom and the U.S., she rejects the notion that the RSC production is a pacifist screed. “When we performed in London, the critics thought that the actor playing Odysseus had a Texas accent and was a nod to George Bush, which it wasn’t,” she says. “The play brings the futility of war into focus, but we were not that obvious.”

In his lifetime, Euripides was the most controversial and least successful of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, yet his plays have been performed more often than those of Sophocles or Aeschylus. Fifth-century critics did not appreciate either his pacifist stance or his portrayals of such human frailties as cowardice, jealousy and sexual obsession, preferring plays with religious themes.

“Hecuba” is “very much a woman’s play, which is ironic given that the Greeks favored a very hard, masculine culture,” Miss Leonard contends. “The play transcends violence, in that the character of Polyxena triumphs without resorting to ‘an-eye-for-an-eye’ revenge tactics.”

The extremes of behavior depicted in Greek tragedies are what attracted Carolyn Griffin, artistic director of MetroStage, to Sophocles’ “Electra,” the first Greek play the theater has performed in its 20-year history.

“I was struck by Electra’s line, there will be killing after killing — forever,” she says. “That line is so moving, given our society and our culture today. And that a woman utters it makes it even more special. There are strong woman parts out there, but the Greek tragedies are so exquisite.”

Michael Russotto is directing Sophocles’ “Electra,” which runs through May 29 and stars Jennifer Mendenhall in the title role. The play, he believes, has contemporary resonance in its portrayals of adolescence and grief.

“The popularity of such TV shows as ‘Six Feet Under’ tells me that America has grown up a little when it comes to dealing with death and grief,” says Mr. Russotto. “We were trained in this country to have a catharsis and get over it, but now we seem more open to talking about death. And Electra is the ultimate griever — she is stuck in the mode of mourning.”

Electra will not and cannot get over the death of her father, and “her adolescent adoration of her father is extreme in the way so many things are when we are young,” he says. “We admire her fidelity and her duty in doing the right thing, which is the most attractive thing about a largely unattractive character.”

When contemplating staging “Medea,” Jose Carrasquillo, co-director of the play at the Washington Shakespeare Company, thought of recent court cases involving mothers drowning and murdering their children and citing postpartum depression as a cause for their acts.

“Many previous productions depict Medea as crazy, but we are taking a more psychological explanation for her actions,” says Mr. Carrasquillo. “She is intense, but not mad, and in the end you do not condemn her as much as understand her.”

There are complex psychological motives driving — though no justification for — Medea’s actions, notes co-director Paul MacWhorter. “Delia Taylor will not be flailing against the Corinthian columns,” he says. “Instead, we want to show Medea’s deep passions, which were scary to audiences in ancient Greece and still are today.”

A heroine of a different stripe is seen in Imagination Stage’s “Perfectly Persephone,” a gentle comedy by Kevin Kling featuring a pantheon of gods and goddesses in their adolescence. “We chose the Greek myths because the best young people’s stories deal with archetypes,” says artistic director Janet Stanford. “It is something children yearn for, since archetypes make sense of it all and help children organize what they see around them every day.”

The Persephone myth tells of how the seasons came to be and also deals with a young girl’s pulling away from her doting mother and finding her own identity. “Some translations of the Persephone myth emphasize her being a victim who was abducted, but we did not want to take that tack,” she adds. “We wanted it to be story about a girl venturing away from home for the first time in her life and discovering that she has a special purpose or talent.”

Miss Stanford figured that elementary school-age theatergoers would warm to the story of Persephone and the gods and goddesses, but is happily surprised that middle-school students and young adults are attending the play “in droves.” She sees the popularity of Greek plays as a testament to their enduring universality.

“It is interesting that the Greek tales are the most persistent and lasting,” Miss Stanford says. “These Greek myths and plays translate across time and culture in a way tales from most other cultures and countries cannot.”

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