Reanimating classics is always a challenge, but some classics are more challenging than others. Aeschylus’ “The Persians” would rank somewhere near the top of a list of the theater’s most recalcitrant texts. It is static even by the standards of Greek tragedy — the only action to speak of is the arrival of some rather bad news.
The National Actors Theater deserves applause for mounting New York’s first major staging of a Greek tragedy in recent memory. For the most part, producers seem to be content to import them from elsewhere, as if the genre required a foreign passport — and a foreign star at centerstage — to be respectable.
Respectability is not a problem with Ethan McSweeney’s “Persians.” The production is handsomely designed and spoken with graceful gravity by a strong cast led by Roberta Maxwell and Len Cariou. Ellen McLaughlin’s new version of the text is vigorous and fluid, albeit a bit wordy at times, and McSweeney lets the ripe imagery of the language speak for itself, resisting the impulse to draw heavy-handed contemporary parallels, although they certainly are there for the taking. And yet the production never really rises beyond a kind of stately worthiness. It’s unadventurous, and “The Persians,” perhaps more than most plays, could probably use a bit of directorial mischief to give it theatrical life.
The staging sets an informal but scholarly tone from the outset, as the chorus takes the stage, in contemporary garb, and briefly describes the play’s history. It is considered by most to be the oldest extant Greek tragedy, and is unique among the surviving tragedies in describing contemporary events. It’s also unusual in its point of view: Aeschylus is writing about the results of a battle that was celebrated by the Greeks as a signal victory over their enemies, the Persians, and he honors the defeated enemy by presenting their loss in empathetic terms. He is suggesting how easily the victors may become the vanquished.
After placing exotic robes over their casual business attire, the chorus, counsellors charged with ruling while the Persian king Xerxes wages war on Greece, describe the military might of their country. Their vivid descriptions of their proud warriors are tinged with foreboding, however, and McLaughlin amplifies this element, including a long, slightly sentimental description of the grief and absence felt by bereft wives. She also adds a pointed suggestion of imperial remorse not in the original, when one of the speakers says, “It is only lately, as I stand in this terrible silence, that I begin to wonder if what we did was right. If what we are doing is right.”
The queen enters, stricken, too, with a sense of impending doom; she describes a morbid dream in which her dead husband, Darius, and son Xerxes both appear. Maxwell exudes a powerful sense of dignity and speaks in a commanding voice; the performance could, however, be improved by variety. The queen’s emotional armor scarcely seems to be pierced when a herald arrives bringing confirmation of her dreams’ portents: The Persian forces have been destroyed.
The play is more a lamentation than a depiction of man struggling with the force of fate. After the herald leaves, the ghost of Darius is conjured, although in McSweeney’s staging he doesn’t seem too ghostly. Cariou’s entrance from the audience could be taken to suggest an arrival from another sphere, but still this specter seems to have a real corporeal form. He joins in the general woe and the rising expressions of anger from the chorus at his son Xerxes, who has “poured the youth of an entire world like so much water into desert sand.” The play concludes with the arrival of Xerxes himself, hollow with shame and remorse.
McSweeney’s straightforward staging has minimal movement. James Noone’s similarly simple set is a disc of dark wood backed by a strip of red sand. Kevin Adams’ lighting, rich in golds and reds, helps animate the proceedings. But there is little here beyond the actors and the text and, fine though the cast is — the chorus in particular deserves praise — they do not ultimately succeed in infusing the proceedings with either the emotional urgency or rhetorical splendor that could turn this stubbornly static text into an exciting night at the theater. We leave feeling we’ve done our duty, certainly taken away the point about the dangers of imperialist pride. But we have not been moved by the depth of a people’s suffering or stricken with awe at the terrible folly of war.