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Political theater
Peter Sellars surrounds The Children of Herakles
BY CAROLYN CLAY

The Children of Herakles
By Euripides. English translation by Ralph Gladstone. Staged by Peter Sellars. Costumes by Brooke Stanton. Lighting by James F. Ingalls. Sound by Shahrokh Yadegari. With Jan Triska, Elaine Tse, Brenda Wehle, Julyana Soelistyo, Albert S., Cornel Gabara, Ulzhan Baibussynova, Christopher Lydon, Heather Benton, and Boston-area refugee youth. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center through January 25.


It is apt that The Children of Herakles is set outside Zeusís temple at Marathon when you consider the marathon evening director Peter Sellars has designed around Euripidesís uncannily modern 2400-year-old play about refugees seeking asylum. One-time Harvard prodigy Sellarsís staging of the rarely performed work (this is billed as its American professional premiere) is deliberate and piercing in its clarity. But it is merely the touchstone of an evening ó presented by the American Repertory Theatre in conjunction with the Carr Foundation and other organizations ó that includes a political discussion, an ethnic feast, and a late-night movie. A pre-show " conversation " with policy and refugee speakers is moderated by former WBUR Connection host Christopher Lydon. The play is followed by food and a film emanating from cultures that have produced large numbers of refugees.

Moreover, the immigrant community is represented in the play itself, the title characters being cast with local refugee youth. In Sellarsís simple staging (which uses a colloquial translation by Ralph Gladstone), these kids, barely engaged but impossible to dismiss, stand in for the children of the dead Argive hero. Hounded from their native soil by the tyrant Eurystheus (deviser of the famous Labors of Herakles), then pursued along with their grandmother and guardian, they seek sanctuary from the Athenians. For most of the play, the teens are enclosed in a fluorescent rectangle on the floor that looks like the outline of a cage. When at last the Athenians (along with Heraklesís son Hyllos) win the battle that determines their fate, the lighted cage, hung on cables, lifts like a spaceship. Like the other few, spare images in this stripped-down, tribunal-like production, it makes for an eloquent effect.

The Loeb Drama Center doesnít seem much like the steep Acropolis hill, but just as Sellars has cast refugee youth as the children of Herakles, he casts the audience as the citizens of Athens, who are called upon to show compassion. Much of the play is directed at the spectators, and those kids, rather than seeming caught up in the action of the play, mostly stare at us. At two points (which is one too many), they are urged by their guardian into the aisles to work the crowd, brushing our hands and thanking us, however perfunctorily, for having offered them protection.

The presence of these impassive kids, who are clad mostly in sweatshirts and jeans, is an interesting element. In a way, itís jarring, because they arenít actors, yet here they are at the center of what is otherwise a riveting piece of theater. By being present, the real rather than the fictive thing, they knock the fourth wall on its face. Sellars, whose production is an aggressive attempt to meld classical drama with contemporary politics, will not allow us the comfort, the distance, of merely watching a play.

Preceded as it is by a 45-minute discussion goosed along by Lydon (on opening night Michael Posner, executive director of Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and Bo Cooper, general counsel to the Justice Departmentís Immigration and Naturalization Service, faced off, with refugee testimony by Ibrahima Bah, who had been imprisoned and tortured in his native Guinea), the production combines ritual elements with those of a public forum. All of Euripidesís characters, even a camouflage-clad servant (who, when battle time comes, does Messenger duty), carry hand mikes when not seated or standing at stationary microphones. Both Demophon, the Athenian " president, " and Copreus, " special envoy " of the ruthless Eurystheus, are played by women in business suits. Brenda Wehleís Demophon is a chief executive both regal and comforting; Elaine Tseís Copreus is a lawyerly bully with a briefcase.

The task of the Chorus, reduced in the main to asking brief questions and relaying information, is taken by Lydon and Heather Benton, who are seated behind mikes at a long table on a side stage and speak with little expression. The choral odes are replaced by the remarkable contribution of Ulzhan Baibussynova. An epic singer from Kazakhstan, garbed in lush native costume and perched three steps above the bejeaned children like a goddess on an altar, she plays a two-stringed instrument called a dombra and offers up the guttural, then full-throated, vocals that are the soul of the production.

Sellars make a commanding case that the rarely produced The Children of Herakles is a neglected masterpiece. It is not. Still, this modern-dress staging, with its strong whiffs of a congressional hearing or the trials at the Hague, underlines the playís extraordinary pertinence. At the same time, the miraculous, mostly minor-key sound of Baibussynova roots the performance in an ancient tradition. The contrast is as stark as the staging, which is played against a blank backdrop on which shadows of the action loom, dance, and disperse to form almost Rorschach-like images. (Baibussynovaís translated lyrics, too, are projected large on the screen.)

Sellarsís production was first produced last September at the Ruhr-Triennale Festival in Bottrop, from where it moved to Rome and Paris before this, its longest engagement, at the ART. The cast, too, is international, including a number of actors who have worked with Sellars before. The performersí work is nuanced and assured. Moreover, the civic nature of the staging, which is characterized by amplification and public address, renders the intimate moments, the personal and family ones, more affecting. When the feisty, childlike Julyana Soelistyo, as Makaria, the Heraklean offspring who offers herself as a sacrifice to ensure that the Athenians will win the battle, bids farewell to her brothers, embracing each refugee and calling him by his real name, then climbs into the old guardianís lap to whisper goodbyes, I found myself moved to tears.

This is the most eloquent section of the play, which later veers in other directions. Sellars, however, has at least a partial cure for Euripidesís lapses. Although in the script the sacrifice of Makaria takes place off stage (and indeed, she is not spoken of again), Sellars stages it as a ritual later in the play. As the Servant/Messenger (a fiery Albert S.) describes the lead-up to the battle with Eurystheusís forces, alluding to priests making a sacrifice, the diminutive actress, now playing the grandmother Alcmene, divests herself of her black bag of a costume and becomes Makaria again. As she is held trembling, a bowl of blood is slowly spilled down her white blouse onto a plastic tarp on the floor. The effect is both elegant and brutal.

The dapper Czech actor Jan Triska, as the wheelchair-ridden guardian Iolaus ( " right-hand man " to the late Herakles), utilizes an ingratiating, even wheedling charm as he persuades the Athenians to protect his desperate charges. Yet he is capable of rising, his body still limp, to a teary, growling vocal fury. In the playís worst tonal twist, Iolaus, who canít even stand, determines to fight in the battle to save the children. Sellars and Triska donít exactly play this for laughs, and the audience doesnít quite know what to make of it, but the grotesque sight of the old warrior curled up in the fetal position calling for armor is not without pathos.

Toward the end, Sellarsís staging loses some focus. Eurystheus, captured and displayed in prison jumpsuit and shackles behind a small square of plexiglass, is imbued by Romanian actor Cornel Gabara with a sullen, chilling rationality thatís not uncommon in a toppled dictator. But Sellars and Soelistyo shy from Alcmeneís vitriolic rage, through which Euripides shows how the cycle of violence twists even the victims. And the end of the play peters out, with Eurystheusís fate, over which Alcmene haggles with the Chorus, not made entirely clear.

Although Sellarsís idea of an evening of total immersion, with Euripidesís play putting a human face on what is, 2400 years later, a global crisis, is engaging, the director seems to have forgotten that the ancient Greeks, on the day of the Dionysia, took off from work to watch oft-cautionary plays. After a long day, the evening Sellars has built on The Children of Herakles is exhausting, particularly given the purposed slowness of the show itself (though ticket holders are permitted to return another evening for the film). The " calendar of events " that includes discussion, testimony, play, a late dinner, a movie, and a lobby exhibit by the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma reflects an extraordinary effort on the part of a great many individuals and organizations. The question is whether so relevant a staging needs so long a train.

Remaining on the film agenda are David Rikerís 1988 La ciudad (January 17 through 19), which focuses on the Spanish immigrant community in New York; Palestinian director Elia Suleimanís 1996 Chronicle of a Disappearance (January 21 through 23), which is set in Nazareth and showcases the dislocation felt by the Arab population; and Sokly " Don Bonus " Ny & Spencer Nakasakoís 1995 A.K.A. Don Bonus (January 24 and 25), a video diary of a Cambodian-born teenís senior year in an American high school.

Issue Date: January 16 - 23, 2003
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