Aeschylus meets Robert Wilson in “Les Danaides,” Romanian director Silviu Purcarete’s avant-garde adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy. Given its U.S. premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival 97, “Danaides” is as impressive visually as it is distant emotionally, a work that strives for grand vision but falls into a cool mix of choreographed ensemble movement and minimalist set design that will seem all too familiar (and second-rate in its monotony) to fans of the Wilson-Robert Lepage school.
Epic in sweep and cast size (at times more than 100 actors move about Lincoln Center’s large outdoor stage in Damrosch Park), “Danaides” reconstructs the tragedy largely through visual imagery (although the French-language dialogue is translated via English supertitles). One of the oldest, and perhaps least well-known, of Greek plays, “Danaides” is based on a myth about the origins of the Greek nation in which 50 woman — the Daughters of Danaos, or the Danaides — are violently pursued by 50 men — the Sons of Egyptos — for the purpose of forced marriage.
On the large black stage, the Danaides, dressed at different times in either flowing blue robes or white veils, move en masse, wail, appeal to the gods and stack white suitcase-size boxes in various configurations as they re-enact the tale of their flight from Egypt. Six gods in white suits or dresses sit to either side of the stage, Zeus (Jean-Jacques Dulon) moving dominoes in the same configurations as the Danaides’ boxes, Hera (Micaela Caracas) striking lusty poses, and all joining in weighty, cynical pronouncements about “the sad destiny of man.”
The Sons of Egyptos, whose orange robes provide a nice visual contrast to the blue and white of the Daughters, arrive to menace the women, their dances both sexual and threatening. At first terrified, the Daughters devise a plan to bed and then murder the men, which they do in the most arresting image of the production: After each of the 50 couples couples beneath a white veil, the Daughters emerge, lift back the veils and reveal the bloody corpses of their husbands, each man’s head wrapped in bandages, forks and knives stuck grotesquely in their mouths.
As is the way of Greek tragedy, the women will have to pay for their sins, and needless to say the tale is not a breezy one. “Let us proclaim our misery in a melancholy dirge,” wails one Danaide.
As if anyone could stop them. Even New York audiences are unlikely to embrace the ponderous “Les Danaides,” in no small part because this strain of avant-gardism seems more than a little dated and pretentious by contemporary American standards. The polite applause at the reviewed performance seemed more a show of the etiquette of a gracious host than true affection.