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In Aeschylus’ contrarian tragedy The Persians, the titular enemies of the author’s native Greece are to be pitied more than censured after their bloody defeat at Greek hands. In the Scena Theatre’s current production, Robert Auletta’s slickly poetic adaptation moves the action to the Gulf War, deftly shoehorning bloodcurdling descriptions of modern weaponry into the Persian laments and exchanging references to the Greeks for references to the United States. The chorus speaks of “velocity bows and razor swords that can laser the heart out of a man’s chest,” and much of its dialogue is a litany of exotic ordnance from recent wars in the Middle East. “Have we taken too much?” asks the deposed Queen Atossa (a perpetually distressed Kerry Waters) as she contemplates what her country has done to deserve its fate. “Have we gone beyond some unknown but sacred line?” She and her compatriots express remorse for their wrongs, in the process describing our own current state of affairs (“Is the power of what we own about to destroy us?”) and emphasizing how much we might have in common with our enemies. As Atossa wonders what will become of her son Xerxes and her country, she calls up the ghost of her husband, Darius (Brian Hemmingsen), whose image creepily adorns the back wall of set designer Michael Kachman’s ruined palace, and accosts him with an account of the war, which he blames on their son before retreating into the gloom. Xerxes shows up next, and David Bryan Jackson does an impressive turn as a tyrant as battle-weary and discouraged as he is arrogant and deluded. Costumer Alisa Mandel cloaks him in modern military garb, a stark contrast to the period-looking robes of the rest of the cast, further blurring the line between yesterday and today. The Persians’ best moments are also its most horrifying, including an eloquent, metered blow-by-blow account of the effects of a 5,000-pound bomb on the human body. The bait-and-switch approach to classic political theater is a risky one, sometimes sacrificing subtlety in service of a dated statement, but Auletta mostly pulls it off, forcing sympathy with the rankest of villains (Xerxes as analogue to Saddam Hussein). Seeing potentially despicable characters loved and mourned serves the play well as a reminder that, to quote S.J. Perelman, “one man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.”

—Sam Thielman