It’s worth letting the experience of “Philoktetes” sink in for a while before trying to dissect it — writer-director-designer John Jesurun’s abstract new work takes its name and part of its structure from Sophocles’ drama, but its emotional texture is unique and deserving of some rumination. By turns a meditation on the Greek play, an antiwar jeremiad and an infuriating snarl of almost-penetrable symbolism, Jesurun’s 70 minutes of blank verse are beautifully staged and acted, particularly by lead Louis Cancelmi, though they eventually wander off, aided in their escape by the production’s dim lighting.
It takes some balls, theatrically speaking, to open your play with the direct address “Once again, it’s time for you to shut up.” Philoktetes himself (Cancelmi) delivers this suggestion as part of his opening salvo. “Listen to me,” he continues. “I’m telling you something.” It’s difficult to know what, exactly, Philoktetes is telling us, since it takes him a long time and a lot of mixed-metaphor imagery to do it. But it’s semi-certain that he’s telling us he won’t go back to war with the soldiers who have hunted him down to re-recruit him.
Philoktetes is doing this telling while standing in the middle of a large square video projection of gently rippling, very blue water — shorthand for the island on which the Greek archer was marooned by his former ally Odysseus (Will Badgett). Master manipulator Odysseus has come back for him, however, and has brought along Neoptolemus (Jason Lew), a callow and idealistic (and attractive) soldier ready to rage at Philoktetes until he agrees to help them.
As he does in Sophocles’ version of the story, Philoktetes spends quite a while communicating the nature, extent and circumstances of his suffering to his would-be captors, but Jesurun keeps Odysseus nearly silent, allowing Philoktetes to dominate. The playwright gives him and the uncertain Neoptolemus a number of visually different ways to communicate. During one conversation between Odysseus and Philoktetes, for example, Neoptolemus delivers his interjections into a video camera upstage. The images projected onto the screen over his head create a short, disturbing lag between the words we hear and the movement of the lips.
So what does all this add up to? Nothing certain, for sure. Jesurun, who has attacked this particular myth in other productions, leaves us with a series of complex impressions, not a narrative punchline. He’s also not interested in rehashing the Sophocles version of the story, in which Philoktetes goes back to war at the behest of the gods.
Jesurun wisely uses the ubiquitous projections as ambient images, rather than illustrations, in the same way another production might use incidental music: They’re never obtrusive, even when the footage in use includes explosions.
Ultimately, “Philoktetes” is actually more fun to write about than to watch or even hear. Jesurun is one of those New York theater artists constantly, laudably straining the logistical bounds of the form — his serial drama “Chang in a Void Moon” is now on episode 60 — but here, he’s somewhat kneecapped by his technical bravado. Specifically, the low lighting required to make the projections visible gives the talky proceedings a sleepy gravity that verges on the perilous.
The Philoktetes story has produced a number of interesting offspring, chief among them Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s marvelous “The Cure at Troy.” Jesurun has certainly added to those ranks with this play, but don’t investigate it without a) filling your Thermos with coffee and b) clearing your schedule to ponder it afterward.