Greek Troupe Looks to Its Roots In Interpreting Ancient Tragedy

THE PERSIANS Drama by Aeschylus. Directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos.

CHICAGO'S fifth International Theatre Festival, which continues through June 19, offers theatergoers a grabbag of drama, ranging from Mexican existentialism to Canadian surrealism to British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's newest comedy, ``Communicating Doors.''

One of the festival's most striking performances, however, was an experimental Greek company's rendering of the classic 5th-century BC Greek tragedy, ``The Persians,'' by Aeschylus. (The production, which ended June 5, was performed in repertory with a modern Greek play ``Kanon.'')

The Attis Theatre of Athens brought both plays to Chicago, and its cast was exceptional for the skill with which it enlivened the ancient drama. Although an intensely physical, modern performance, the essence of Aeschylus was still preserved.

``The theater is static, but we are not static. We start from the basic principles of the work and make it new,'' director Theodoros Terzopoulos said in an interview backstage.

In a bold fusion of old and new, the actors stood on low platforms and wore simple flowing black robes reminiscent of the costumes of ancient Athens. But the actors also used jarring, modern props such as black-and-white photographs of Bosnian war victims.

They spoke both modern and ancient Greek to fully exploit the languages' rich variety of sounds. They blended classical dialogue with eerie wails, groans, and shuddering movements. At times, however, the gestures seemed overwrought and distracted the viewer from the play's universal theme of the futility of war.

The play, originally presented by Aeschylus in Athens in 472 BC,was itself unprecedented for its deeply sympathetic treatment of a defeated enemy. The only surviving Greek tragedy to deal with historical subject matter, the play is set in the aftermath of Persia's stunning defeat in the battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Remarkably for the time, however, the play does not gloat over the Greek victory but instead vividly relates the anguish of the vanquished Persians.

The play chronicles the total destruction of the massive forces led by the Persian king, Xerxes, through the eyes of the Persians who learn of the devastation in the Persian capital of Susa.

From the opening scene, the actors controlled their bodies, faces, and voices to evoke - without words - the Persians' sense of impending doom. Slowly rocking back and forth in wavelike unison, the actors conveyed the agonizing six-month wait for a messenger to arrive with news of the war.

The actors then created a slow, rhythmic crescendo of cries of denial and hysterical laughter. Upon learning of the defeat, the actors spoke while tearing at their hair, beating their chests, and shaking as if out of inconsolable grief.

Here, the intent of the actors and director was to tap the primordial origins of speech and movement to lend depth to the tragedy.

``We are trying to find the sources of sound within the body. That is why the actors speak from the diaphragm, not from the lips,'' Terzopoulos said. Similarly, the actors wore only a light white makeup, forcing them to make full use of natural facial expressions.

Contrasting with the high emotion of the production was the simplicity of the action and the stark setting.

There were five actors in the cast, three women and two men. None of them left the stage throughout the 70-minute performance; a change of costume and addition of makeup were handled subtly and inconspicuously on stage. The stage was a stark circle of white canvas bearing a single splotch of red.

To keep the focus on the Greek actors, the only English provided was a brief synopsis spoken by an offstage narrator before each of five parts of the play.

The minimalist background music, written in 1935 by a Greek composer who studied the music of ancient Egypt, was an atonal mixture of percussion, wailing instruments, and a deep throbbing.

The climax of the play was the speech of the ghost of Darius, the former ruler of Persia and father of Xerxes. The image of Darius, created with only a simple length of shimmering gold lame, rose seemingly from nowhere.

The hauntingly aloof Darius, remarkably portrayed by actress Sophia Michopoulou, provided a vital counterpoint to the wild lamentations of the rest of the cast. Berating the Persians for their hubris in waging the war and their rash destruction of Greek temples, Darius intoned the universal message of the tragedy:

Beneath the Doric spear the clotted mass

Of carnage shall arise, that the high mounds,

Piled o'er the dead, to late posterity

Shall give this silent record to men's eyes,

That proud aspiring thoughts but ill besteem

Weak mortals: for oppression, when it springs,

Puts forth the blade of vengeance, and its fruit

Yields a ripe harvest of repentant woe.

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