According to director Peter Sellars, the first performance of Euripides’ “The Children of Herakles” in Athens in 430 B.C. “served as a town meeting about refugee issues.” In light of the world’s current overwhelming refugee issues, it is that aspect of this seldom-produced Greek tragedy that he attempts to emulate in his modern-dress production of it and all its accompanying events, first experienced in September at the Ruhr-Triennale in Bottrop, Germany. The added events sometimes smack too much of the lecture hall or the town hall, though the production of the play has its memorable moments. Certainly the estimated 30 million refugees around the world in 2003 deserve any attention drawn to their plight.
The lengthy evening begins with a panel discussion about refugees by different speakers nightly, testimony by a different refugee nightly and a Q&A sesh. After a break comes the production itself, in which young Boston-area refugees play the nonspeaking title roles. It is followed by a supper break for conversation with the cast, speakers and refugee participants and then, finally, the screening of one of a series of films from countries generating large numbers of refugees.
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Perhaps Sellars and the American Repertory Theater are overestimating audience durability because on the night reviewed, few audience members lasted through all four-plus hours. Which was a pity, since the film that night was Werner Herzog’s 1992 “Lessons of Darkness,” 52 minutes of hideously beautiful, mostly aerial photography of the hellish apocalyptic aftermath of the Persian Gulf War in Kuwait, burning oilfields and all.
But the play is, after all, the thing, and Sellars and his feisty international English-speaking cast present it with telling bare-bones simplicity in Ralph Gladstone’s contempo English translation. Just one main cast member has been changed since the German premiere; Jan Triska now is wheelchair-bound Iolaus, an old friend of the late Herakles. Triska has to launch the play via a lengthy speech to the audience. He does so with vigorous humanity and soon is joined by Copreus (Elaine Tse), the special envoy of Eurystheus, the man responsible for Herakles’ death and the flight of his children to sanctuary in Athens. Presumably the children didn’t appear at all in the original play, since it’s basically an intellectual discussion of the situation. Copreus comes to claim the refugee children; Iolaus wants Athens to shelter them.
Demophon, the daughter of Theseus and the president of Athens, agrees, even to the point of battling Eurystheus’ troops. Brenda Wehle is a visually and charismatically impressive Demophon.
Diminutive Julyana Soelistyo plays Herakles’ mother, Alcmene, and his sister Macaria effectively, as the former leading a refugee group of the female children of Herakles, as the latter offering herself up as a sacrifice to the gods. Sellars’ staging of the sacrifice of Macaria, including the spilling of a bowl of blood over her white gown, is a theatrical high point.
Albert S. is vigorously larger-than-life as the attendant/soldier who retells what happened prior to and during the battle.
At the end, Eurystheus himself is led on in manacles and shackles wearing orange prison garb. Cornel Gabara projects this character bluntly from behind what is presumably a bullet-proof glass screen as if at a war atrocity trial, his voice harshened by amplification (the whole production is miked).
Boston journalist Christopher Lydon, the panel moderator, also is part of the play’s Chorus. He and Heather Benton sit behind mikes at a table to one side of the stage and quietly ask questions of the onstage characters from time to time. The high-pressure reactions to their questions contrast with the conversational level of the Chorus, which represents the audience and the people of Athens.
To musically punctuate his production, Sellars uses Kazakhstan-born epic singer-instrumentalist Ulzhan Baibussynova. Illness kept her from the performance seen, but recordings of a number of her chanted ethnic songs were played. Usually she performs from an altar around which the refugee boys sit, surrounded by a square of white neon.
Numerous organizations have participated in the presentation of the various elements of “The Children of Herakles,” and the play is certainly of sufficient intellectual, emotional and theatrical interest to be given its first professional U.S. airing after nearly 2,500 years. It’s doubtful, however, whether it will see multiple productions over the years as has, say, “Medea.”