Euripides' The Children of Herakles

American Repertory Theatre; Peter Sellars, director. Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. January 4 - 25, 2003.

Reviewed by James T. Svendsen

Euripides' much maligned and rarely produced The Children of Herakles has found sanctuary in the hands of director Peter Sellars at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. A play about refugees, self-sacrifice and revenge, the script lends itself to a discussion of issues both timely and enduring. As Sellars says, "The questions associated with refugees are eternal. The Greeks used drama to raise them, because drama takes you much deeper than politics. I'm trying to do the same thing." The A.R.T. production, with its uneasy blend of ancient Greek text, place names, gods and conventions with contemporary microphones, costumes and props, attempts to revitalize the ancient script and touch a modern audience with its message. Euripides' The Children of Herakles is a difficult play fraught with problems, tensions and controversies. The A.R.T. production is no less demanding and challenging.

Similar to his production of Aeschylus' Persians, Sellars sets his landscape in a "poor man's" theatre laid bare with brick back walls, screen, lighting frame and even rope with sandbag open to the audience. A simple raised platform draped with a Persian rug evokes the altar so necessary for the original Greek setting and also serves as the space for Ulzhan Baibussynova, the epic singer from Kazakhstan who provides the music and song for the choral odes. A side stage with table, microphones and scripts provides an additional space for Christopher Lydon and his assistant (unnamed in the program) to interrogate the actors and to comment on the stage action. One key directorial choice is the fragmentation of the original chorus into an intellectual component and a lyrical dimension, while keeping the visual focus on the young, mute refugees part of the original script.

Brooke Stanton's costume design is uniformly contemporary with Iolaus, Copreus & Demophon in politico formalwear, Macaria in jeans, t-shirt and platform boots, and Alcmene in a dark, shapeless burka timeless in its evocation of the Middle East. James F. Ingalls' lighting design remains for the most part general and bright with few special effects. A crucial choice is the florescent rectangle which confines the teen-age refugees. At times reminiscent of a refugee boat packed to the gunnels and overflowing, the rectangle of light is lifted skyward during the Messenger speech announcing the Athenian victory, setting free its cargo of exiles. As in the ancient Greek theater, Sellars keeps his production values simple and minimalist, creating climaxes with magic and keeping his focus on the words and actors.

The cast of the A.R.T. production is uniformly strong with memorable portrayals of Iolaus by Jan Triska and of Macaria/Alcmene by Julyana Soelistyo. The global nature of the cast from the USA, Europe, Kazakhstan and the Far East, with their distinct vocal patterns and ethnic features left untouched by director Peter Sellars, accentuates the global nature of the issues. Elaine Tse creates an icy, formal and distant political envoy, coldly logical in her laying out of the problem and options and physically threatening as she violently overturns Iolaus' wheelchair. Jan Triska's Iolaus is perhaps the emotional center and heart of the A.R.T. production. Trapped in his wheelchair, fragile and vulnerable, he portrays the physical pain and mental anguish of the elderly, arguably the most affected by exile and loss of place. At first pleading and suppliant, Triska proves both a logical, feisty and effective opponent for Copreus, a doting grandfather for Macaria and a self-sacrificing optimist ready to fight for his freedom. His arthritic hands both accuse and comfort, and his two attempts to leave his wheelchair to supplicate and to join the army provoke both pathos and comedy. Doubling is a defining convention in the ancient Greek theater, and Julyana Soelistyo's portrayals of both the teen-ager Macaria and the aged Alcmena are a tour de force. Her diminutive stature befits both characters, but Soelistyo transforms herself vocally from a soft, breathy, shyly hesitant girl into an aggressive and manic spirit of revenge. One of the structural criticisms of Euripides' script is precisely the abrupt exit of Macaria to her voluntary death. In contrast to the convention of portraying violence offstage, Sellars seamlessly presents the virginal sacrifice onstage with Macaria re-costumed in white, blood rituals and plastic body bag. The metamorphosis of Soelistyo from frightened girl seeking solace and curled up in Iolaus' wheelchair, to ritualistic victim, to a ranting specter of vengeance unifies and heightens the emotional impact of the last half of Euripides' fragmented play.

Sellars uses the English translation of The Children of Herakles by Ralph Gladstone and leaves the scenes and basic structure of Euripides' play intact. No preshow precedes the opening monologue by Iolaus, and Eurystheus, played by Cornel Gabara, unexpectedly and abruptly closes the production without choral commentary as in Euripides' script. Nor does Sellars alter the second, non-speaking chorus of young teen-agers, who huddle around the altar and bring pathos to this sometimes analytic and rhetorical play. What does change, however, is the form and content of the choral odes sung by the Kazakhstani epic singer Ulzhan Baibussynova, who accompanies herself on the dombra (a two-stringed lute). While the songs are evocative of another world and a lyrical antidote to the debates and monologues, only some seem to comment on the previous scenes with one departing unexpectedly from the Greek context by allusions to God, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Mohammed.

Also disrupting the linear momentum are the comments from the moderator Christopher Lydon, a "distinctive voice in print, television and radio journalism for more than thirty years." The use of Lydon within the production coincides with Sellars' concept of situating the production within a contemporary context of preceding "Discussion and Interview" and following film, "an artistic response to the current crisis." On January 25, 2003, the discussion was led by Michael Ignatieff, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government, and moderated by Boston celebrity and radio personality Lydon. The refugee speaker was Tiawan Gongloe, a Liberian lawyer imprisoned without charge for "anti-government" statements now living as a political refugee in the Boston area. The film following Sellars' production of The Children of Herakles was aka Don Bonus, not a documentary but an artistic film dealing with exile and being a refugee. Thus while the centerpiece was an ancient Greek play laced with anachronisms, Sellars' frame for the evening was contemporary with discussion and questions and testimonies from the audience. Even within the play, after the refugees had been freed and given asylum, the smiling teen-agers ran into the audience, shaking hands and thanking the latter-day Athenians who had given them sanctuary. Sellars' presentational style, with actors at microphones speaking directly to the audience, prepares for this metatheatrical moment, emphasizing that the audience too must listen closely to the arguments, make decisions and judgments and take action like the ancient Athenians.

Sellars' use of microphones at once distances the audience much like the ancient Greek mask, but the pose of the actors at microphones evokes countless modern politicians in political debates or preachers giving their sermons. There is a didactic, preachy element to Sellars' production but one consciously reminiscent of Euripidean debates and modern political culture. Similarly, Sellars' gender-bending of the special envoy Copreus, played by Elaine Tse, and of President Demophon, played by Brenda Wehle, updates the Athenian patriarchy with a world run by females
equally aggressive, threatening and compromising. The A.R.T. production attempts to bridge the gap between the ancient Euripidean text and the modern world with its technology, dress and weapons. For the prophet, Peter Sellars, these externals are merely superficial; the issues, problems and tensions of The Children of Herakles are eternal and unchanging. While some individual pieces and effects of the A.R.T. production may not be totally effective, the overall mosaic has a theatrical integrity and entertains in the ancient Greek sense of stimulating the eye, ear, heart and mind.

Dr James T. Svendsen
University of Utah