Siracusa, 1994:
Prometheus, Agamemnon, and The Acharnians

Reviewed by Thomas A. Pallen
Austin Peay State University

The theatre at Siracusa, Sicily, has experienced at least six incarnations before the modern era. A circular orchestra defined by wooden planking lies only a short distance from the first rows of the cavea, with only a shallow trench for lighting and sound equipment separating performers from spectators. Beyond the orchestra, scenic structures differ from production to production: whereas yesterday's cultures erected wooden or stone skenai and employed their facades as dominant scenic elements, today's prefer a more varied scenography.

Performances begin around 6 p.m., while evening sunlight illuminates the performance area. Darkness generally arrives toward the denouement, with electric light gradually supplementing the fading daylight. Tickets entitle their holders to either specified wedges of the lower cavea or, at a lower price, to the full sweep of the middle cavea (the upper cavea remains unrestored). The stone tiers, many cracked and eroded after only 25 centuries of use and disuse, make cushions a necessity rather than a luxury and they can be rented at the site or brought in by spectators. The site remains visitable during morning and afternoon hours, but the modern scenographic areas of course conceal the remains of Greek and Roman stage buildings and orchestras.

Even the most cursory examination of photographs taken during productions by the Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico at Siracusa between 1914 and the late 1960s creates a distinct impression of scenography in service of contemporary theories of 'Classical' production techniques, albeit influenced in turn by Romanticism and stile liberty (Art Nouveau). More recent productions display the increasingly heavy hand of concept-minded directors. Concept productions, those in which the presence of the director- scenographer dominates or even overwhelms that of the playwright, frequently occur in response to ancient or classic scripts. The 1994 season at Siracusa, Sicilia, provided a sampler of such productions that ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime to the healthily ludicrous.

Agamemnon provided the ridiculous end of this spectrum. Its solemn, majestic, yet nearly demonic denizens found themselves inexplicably transported to a South-Sea island--south of early Hollywood, that is--oddly endowed with metallic monuments worthy of the worst episodes of Star Trek. Agamemnon's palace became a sloping, metallic structure with a massive entranceway that led underground, perhaps to the bomb shelter. Agamemnon and Cassandra entered seated on massive rattan-covered sedan chairs decked with fronds which raised the specter of Dorothy Lamour or Faye Wray. Fibrous costumes abounded and the budget for body makeup must have been enormous. These scenographic distractions aside, a more serious problem arose from the cacophonous din of clashing music and simultaneous semi- choruses. This deadly combination, further muddled by poorly mixed amplification, rendered many of Aeschylus' great choral passages incomprehensible. Despite some excellent performances in the character roles, this production drowned in its own concept.

In absolute contrast to the cluttered staging of Agamemnon, Prometheus offered magnificently austere scenography. A small, metal-grated platform 'floated' in the midst of a plain of grayish- green void formed by the canvas-covered surface of the orchestra. Behind the platform, an immense but apparently weightless wall of metal bars did not so much enclose the 'prison' as divide it from the rest of the cosmos. Kratos, Bia, and Hephaestus brought Prometheus to his prison from below the small platform, leaving only his head visible, surmounted by a cocky black derby reminiscent of Waiting for Godot.

Oceanus' daughters appeared above the wall of bars, crossing the stage in a sort of cart from which they jumped into a chute that delivered them, almost comically, to stage level, just beyond the bars. Io came complete with a rubber udder. Indeed, the production bore numerous traces of humor, all in stark contrast to the nearly uniform blackness of the costumes, especially the huge black wings worn by Oceanus.

Stark scenographic simplicity and the eloquently stentorian speech of Prometheus completely laid to rest any critical doubts about the theatricality of this script.

And then there was The Acharnians, boisterously, busily, not-quite Greek. Here, too, the set was simple: Curving, enclosed wooden corridors ending in properly corniced doorways defined an 'orchestra' lightly coated with crushed nut shells and bounded by a gaudily painted wooden grandstand upstage. This was for the Pyrtanes, who on their first entry spilled from one of the doorways, costumed as absurd black birds.

Dicaeopolis arrived ahead of them, perfectly clad as a man of the people, an unmistakable Garibaldiste. Phalloi abounded in comic proportions as to both number and size. Indeed, the Thracian soldiers had theirs, unmistakably circumcised, hitched in front of them like burlesque horses, complete with controlling reins. And when Dicaeopolis and his family entered for their Bacchic ritual, the slaves bore a phallus fit to be used as a rocket to Mars. The visit to Euripides found the tragedian Aristophanes most loved to mock rolled out in his nightclothes on a large, white-draped bed--an ingenious comic inversion of the ekkyklema.

After the chorus of soot-besmirched Charcoal-burners had delivered a parabasis so moving that it threatened to upset the comic applecart, Dicaeopolis and his family entered capering to rebalance the mood. With twig brooms, they literally 'opened' his market by furiously sweeping clean a gleaming wooden circle: a round within the round of the theatre's modern orchestra space. Throughout the action, a small band provided appropriately raucous accompaniment to choruses and underscored the most boisterous scenes, sometimes sitting or standing casually to one side of the playing area, at others joining the on-stage performers.

Acharnians and Prometheus thus provided well-devised and finely-executed performances of which Melpomene and Thalia must have felt proud, while Agamemnon appealed to some unidentifiable Muse. All three demonstrated how much production values have changed at Siracusa in recent decades. The next festival occurs in 1996, with a program not as yet announced.

Reviewed by Thomas A. Pallen
Austin Peay State University

(Thomas A. Pallen is an Assistant Professor of Theatre History at Austin Peavy State University. His review of productions in Cortona and Venice recently appeared in The Italian Journal.)