Also see Susan's review of The Retreat from Moscow
Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company has a way of finding the universal, and the timely, in the most ancient of texts. The company’s current production, The Persians, exemplifies this skill: the oldest surviving play in western drama, one of only six surviving scripts by Aeschylus, it speaks clearly across the centuries in Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation and Ethan McSweeny’s lucid direction.
The Persians examines the aftermath of the battle of Salamis, in which the overwhelming Persian empire took on the small city-state of Athens and, to its astonishment, lost. The shock, then as now, is that Aeschylus – himself a veteran of the Athenian army who fought at Salamis – chose to focus on the defeated Persians rather than celebrating the triumph of Athens. Even more surprising, he premiered the play only eight years after the battle, in 472 B.C.E., when emotions were still raw.
As adapted by McLaughlin, the drama has certain specific similarities to current politics. The reckless young Persian king, Xerxes (Erin Gann), has attempted to outdo the accomplishments of his revered late father, Darius (Ted van Griuthuysen), whose ghost is summoned by the chorus, here reconfigured as a cabinet of royal advisors. “The father was a good man, but the son is arrogant and cruel,” the counselors say, calling Xerxes a “god-mocking boy.”
As should be apparent, the overall tone of the 80-minute drama is mourning. Atossa (the regal Helen Carey), widow of Darius and mother of Xerxes, has had a premonition of disaster. Soon a herald (Scott Parkinson) arrives from the battlefield with horrifying descriptions of unburied dead on the shores of Salamis and bloody bodies floating in the sea.
Aeschylus, and McLaughlin, depict the attack of Xerxes against the free democracy of Athens as an act of hubris, or a towering sense of pride that enrages the gods. However, having prevailed in what would have seemed a hopeless cause, Athens is now at risk to become the next empire and possibly fall as Persia has.
Such a stylized form of theater requires performers who understand how to declaim and act in ritualistic ways without seeming silly. Carey and van Griethuysen embody nobility, as do the members of the chorus, including company regulars David Sabin, Floyd King, and Emery Battis. Parkinson brings a fierce, manic power to his scene. The one problematic performance is Gann, whose callow conception of Xerxes may be true to the character, but is not especially gripping to watch.
Supporting the action are percussionists N. Scott Robinson and Orlando Cotto and cellist Caroline Kang. Michael Roth’s sound score acts as an underlying heartbeat for the Persian nation, as represented by its deposed leaders.
James Noone’s scenic design and Kevin Adams’ lighting design add to the feverish intensity of the experience. The central circular platform, echoing the shape of an ancient Greek amphitheater, is surrounded by blood-red sand and backed with an intimidating rack of spotlights. Jess Goldstein has designed sumptuous robes for the counselors and Atossa, although the integration of modern-dress elements makes the contemporary parallels much more obvious than does the production as a whole.
Shakespeare Theatre Company