Myth and Reality
In early February, Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd appeared on Channel 8's Weeknight Edition with Ernie Manouse touting the Alley's then-upcoming production of John Burton and Kenneth Cavander's 1981 epic The Greeks as the theatrical equivalent of George Lucas's Star Wars. Murder, war and revenge, went his reasoning, all have enormous appeal for everyone, from seven-year-olds to their grandparents. What Boyd left out of his equation was The Greeks's salacity, a characteristic that only briefly surfaced in Star Wars and an element that is intensely present in his first half of the Alley's ten-play series.
Long a staple in ambitious university programs, The Greeks was originally commissioned by England's Royal Shakespeare Company in order to elicit a more contemporary feel for the ten mythic dramas. With its 36 actors, yards of costuming and massive rehearsal commitment, the production carries a certain grandeur, and it's heartening to find the Alley mustering up the ambition to produce such an epic. The celebrated million dollars that was poured into the production went for tasty rarities: an original musical score and live musicians for each performance, a chorus of dancers and one of Kevin Rigdon's luscious set and lighting designs.
In terms of first impact, the money seems well spent. The show is amazingly beautiful: Sepia burnished panels cover the stage and a skene, a traditional Greek set piece that serves as an all-purpose palace entrance with a giant sliding door, sits upstage. Behind the skene's door is a square rolling platform that serves as Achilles's tent, Andromache's chariot and Agamemnon's ship during the course of the evening. Tender wisps of smoke illuminate the orchestra as the audience sits down, and one by one, the chorus appears to tell stories. A partial mask hangs, visible through the skene's door -- an icon of the gods and their power over mortals.
Iphigenia at Aulis, however, opens part one with a taste of the production's jarringly uneven qualities. One of Euripides's less-celebrated plays, the story has often been criticized for the title character's abrupt change of heart. Set in a Greek camp at Aulis, the action is preceded by the kidnapping of Helen -- the action that launched the Greeks' war against the Trojans. Faced with a windless sea, Agamemnon, a Greek general and Helen's brother-in-law, is charged with the task of rescuing the world's most beautiful woman and regaining Greece's honor. As played by James Black, Agamemnon is, appropriately, an empty and war-driven weakling, ruled by the moment and by his inability to make noble choices. Asked by the goddess Artemis to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to provide his ships with wind, he makes plans to do so.
What is wrong with this Iphigenia indicates what's gone wrong -- in some cases terribly wrong -- with the Alley's production of The Greeks in general. In painting the broad framework of the story, the company has lost sight of the various plays' nuances and poetry. In Cavander's 1973 translation of Iphigenia, Agamemnon reconsiders his decision to slay his daughter and in that moment offers a misdirected tenderness for Iphigenia -- the model of chaste purity. There are no such delicacies in this production. Instead of being innocently noble and self-righteous, Debra Eisenstadt's Iphigenia is coarse and flirtatious. She handles her father with a strange roughness, even cradling his arm underneath her breast. Each of the play's characters, in fact, has been made into a cartoon of lust.
Strange, too, that the chorus of dancers and singers winds around Iphigenia in patterns that would be more appropriate for a Polynesian luau, and that their tie-dyed yellow and orange gowns are obscenely set off with a crest of showgirl flowers in their hair. In his attempt to make the chorus an integral, living part of the plays, Boyd has created a spectacle so diffuse that it's often difficult to find the dwindling thread of story. It doesn't help that, in total, the plays lack the lyrical language one expects from the Greeks. The sparse nature of Cavander's translation creates a more fluid narrative, but ultimately lacks passion. There are no memorable lines. Worse in terms of stagecraft, when the three-hour extravaganza is finished, few moments linger in the memory. Impressions of the production slip away as easily as if it were a confectionary musical.
The saving grace in Iphigenia is Elizabeth Heflin's Clytemnestra. Regal in her bearing and believable in her appeals to the callous Agamemnon, Heflin offers a brief respite from the quality of flat caricature that pervades this introductory play. It isn't quite enough to counter the paucity of emotion in the rest of the production, however, and by the end of the evening, Heflin's performance, too, is reduced to parody.
The program notes point out that Achilles, the play that follows Iphigenia, is the Alley's version of Cavander and Barton's version, based on the original texts from Homer's Iliad. Such convoluted lineage gives one pause. Still, hope springs up when Thetis, a sea nymph, appears to the accompaniment of wonderfully sparkling chimes. Clad in a semi-transparent body stocking, Jean Arbeiter captivatingly prances about her son Achilles, who cannot see her. In one brief moment, it's possible to see what this production could have been -- utterly engaging and delightful.
The Greeks' greatest warrior, Achilles figures prominently not only in the Iliad but in Virgil's Aeneid as well. The Alley, however, offers a rather bizarre reading of the hero. Costumed in samurai warrior garb, Michael Bubrick is a buffoonish version of Achilles. Alternately strutting and sulking, he manages to make Agamemnon look reasonable -- which is more than a slight twisting of the original narrative. Alley audiences will recognize the scene settings, indeed the very quality of empty lust played out in this section of the epic, as lifted from Boyd's other extravaganza this season -- the disastrous In the Jungle of Cities. Vacuous-looking women are shuttled about like dolls, and Agamemnon's argument with Achilles over a concubine is reduced to the level of a dispute among boys in a sandbox.
Then again, such characterization is trademark Boyd. As critic Andy Lavender has put it, "We are now supposed to be enjoying the age of designer theater under the rule of the director." Forget Homer and Virgil; forget Barton and Cavander; this Achilles has little to do with the authors and everything to do with director Boyd and a fantasy of the power of interpretation. If you want thrusting penises decorated with codpieces, you've come to the right place. If you want bare asses separated by thongs, you'll be satiated. If you want art, however, stay at home and read the originals.
The last play before the intermission break is Euripides's The Trojan Women -- and this first look at the Trojan side of the war is a painful one. Women are strewn about the stage, their clothes ragged, their faces drawn. Hecuba, former queen of Troy, has been claimed as a slave, as has her daughter-in-law Andromache. In this play, the musical component of The Greeks becomes a good deal more literal; one song describes Troy's fall and a number of choral pieces underline the war's despair. The songs are somewhat less deadly than the hokey choral repetition, but they still far short of their purpose, which is to further dramatize the plight of the unfortunate.
Shelley Williams's Andromache appears on a rolling platform, the remnants of her household bundled around her, and her child Astyanax by her side. Wrapped in a black mourning gown, Williams is a lamentable figure, and her railing at the Greeks offers, finally, the kind of hurling rage an audience expects from such a character. Euripides wrote women who are often the victims of endless suffering and cruelty, and who reveal their strength in the face of the worst treachery. When her child is plucked from her embrace to be tossed off Troy's walls, Williams is first vengeful, and then stoic.
The Trojan Women also introduces Cassandra, the prophet whose visions aren't believed. If there is one reason to suffer through the crowded mess of The Greeks, it would be to see Corliss Preston's Cassandra. Preston has the rare ability to inhabit the spirit of a role. Wild-eyed and fierce, she is carted off at the end of The Trojan Women to become Agamemnon's concubine. Each time she speaks, the dialogue seems somehow less bland, the production inspired and the story alive.
The least realized major character in The Trojan Women is Hecuba, whose story continues after the intermission. Played by Jacqueline Knapp, Hecuba is largely ineffectual -- so much so that Agamemnon's ironic, "O, Hecuba, you suffer so much," is a welcome dig, and earned laughter from the opening night audience. Knapp's weak interpretation is evident in Hecuba, the evening's fourth play, as well. Where she should be gloriously vindictive, she is instead small and mean.
In Hecuba, the production's acting flaws continue. Instead of even subtly altering their personas from the roles they perform in the other plays, both John Feltch and Jeffrey Bean offer identical soulless versions of their characters. As Polymestor, the treacherous host of Hecuba's last living son, Bean sleepwalks through his richest scene. Feltch is perplexingly the same placidly amused figure in each of his characters -- utterly unchanged from play to play. Despite their occasionally less textured roles, the women own the Alley's production of The Greeks. As the evening's second sacrificial virgin, Jodi Melnick's Polyxena is luminous. Her story is one that resonates with the Trojan women's condition -- left utterly behind, they find death is much nobler option than becoming a slave to a barbaric Greek.
Despite the disappointments, The Greeks is often beautiful, and nowhere more so than in Agamemnon's return. Astride his ship and all the spoils of the war, Black is sailed onto center stage. At the bottom of his heap is Cassandra's mummified form, left wrapped until the warrior gets his proper greeting. The icon that hung upstage during Iphigenia has disappeared, and a larger version appears on the floor downstage, as Clytemnestra's palace altar.
Unfortunately, what begins beautifully ends in parody. As Cassandra predicts, the blood flow from the house of Atreus isn't over. After murdering her husband to avenge her daughter's death, Clytemnestra appears in the palace doorway, soaked with blood. Dragging an ax behind her, she stands beside the corpses of her husband and his concubine and licks a trail of blood running down her cheek. There's a ridiculous horror film theme here -- the ax Heflin drags across the platform sounds like the flimsy prop it is, and her wry announcement of her deed is a throwaway line rather than the fulfillment of her revenge. Robbed of its meaning, the murder is another example of empty lust -- this time for blood. Utterly absent is the sensibility that Iphigenia's death is avenged.
The cycles of destruction and rebirth, of journeys and returns, are the elements that endure in Greek myth. These stories, which were central to Cavander and Barton's translation, are lost in this production, which seeks cleverness over truth. Borrowing the elegiac tone that The Greeks so desperately lacks, it might be said that Boyd, like Agamemnon, has been poisoned by the taste of fame, and can no longer remember what it's like to trust the common people -- who are, in this case, his audience.
-- Megan Halverson
The Geeks (part one) plays through April 24 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.