Ancient Greek Drama With a Topical Twist

DIRECTOR Peter Sellars has spent the better part of a decade putting exhilarating new spins on classical dramas and operas, both known and forgotten. Setting Mozart in urban ghettos, for example, he made the elegant and formal suddenly hilarious and accessible. But Sellars is also known to have a political agenda, perhaps a leftover from his Harvard University days when big bad America was the favorite whipping post of an entire generation.

The scaffold-and-video jungle gym he created for John Adams's opera ``The Death of Klinghoffer'' two years ago equated Jews and Arabs (victims, both) and forced the audience to reexamine its prejudices. Now, Sellars, rereading the Greek classics, has rediscovered ``The Persians,'' by Aeschylus, and found not only a timeless commentary on war but a dynamic opportunity to once again address Mideast issues, particularly the Gulf war. The Sellars version asks audience members to empathize with Iran (substitute for Persia), which took the brunt of military strikes from the Iraqis (Greeks).

Sellars may be an anarchist, but he's no fool. Using an adaptation of the play by Ken Auletta (the same gifted dramatist who adapted Sophocles' ``Ajax'' for him in 1985), Sellars shrewdly premiered ``The Persians'' at the Salzburg, Austria, and Edinburgh, Scotland, festivals. European audiences reportedly gave the show standing ovations. He was ready for America.

In Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum here, Sellars found an uneasy but admiring compatriot who agreed to mount the production unseen. The result: an unmistakable theater event that, by the time it closed Oct. 24, may have unintentionally set a record for the number of theatergoers who fled before its conclusion. Sellars anticipated the exodus by addressing the audience before each performance. He warned that the intermissionless two-hour performance ``may seem like 20'' but asked people to stay anyway. His candor and charm prepared everyone for the worst; but within a quarter of an hour, not even his promise of provocative and substantive drama could dissuade the bored and restless from heading for the exits.

Aeschylus fought in the Persian War; 10 years later he asked Greek audiences to imagine what it must have been like to be Persian. In his play, after a long prologue, a messenger brings bleak news to Queen Atossa, who waits for her son King Xerxes to return from the front. She is visited by the ghost of her late husband, King Darius, and together they bemoan the fact that Xerxes has expanded the war and committed violent acts. By the time Xerxes appears, fresh from battle and dressed like a ragged soldier, he too is appalled by the slaughter. He refuses to change his clothes and asks his mother to dress someone else in rags so that another man may be king.

`THE Persians'' is without question a timely and relevant drama. Auletta rises to the challenge of adapting Aeschylus' play with language that is both aurally rich and revealing of character. But he has not settled on a time period: References to chariots, thrones, and gods stand side by side with allusions to telephones, missiles, and even stealth bombers. It's not only confusing, it's infuriating. The text is also politically incendiary at times: At one point, Xerxes says, ``I have never been so happy in my life, Mother, so fulfilled. I defied the United States of America.''

Auletta and Sellars chose to make the chorus only two individuals; whether a different production with a full complement of voices speaking in unison might have been more powerful is debatable, but it might have helped create more urgency and tension onstage.

Sellars's directorial choices were curious and at times counterproductive. While the staging presented startling and evocative shadows against a stagewide tarpaulin, and augmented the sense of imminent war with the sounds of bombs and explosions, his casting choices fell short of the heavyweight acting talent this kind of writing needs.

John Ortiz's Xerxes in the Taper production had some energy and vocal color, but Cordelia Gonzalez seemed too young and inexperienced to play the suffering queen. In another misstep, Sellars cast the hearing-impaired actor Howie Seago, who was so arresting in ``Ajax,'' as Darius. Seago performed in sign language, while another actor supplied his voice offstage. Gonzalez as the queen had the thankless task of responding believably to Seago while hearing the other man's voice.

Auletta is to be congratulated for helping Sellars bring this astonishing play kicking and screaming into the 20th century. But ``The Persians'' does not need all that much embellishment. In his introduction to the published text, Sellars explained his decision to use microphones as the contemporary equivalent of Greek masks: ``They simultaneously project, distort, and cover the human voice, offering both a hiding place and instant public exposure.'' Maybe. But when microphones are used to project voices on top of one another, nothing is understood, and audiences are left feeling insulted and alienated.

Better results might have been achieved by hiring great actors, deciding what century they were in, and letting them speak without sound effects.

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