It’s an old story: War hero returns home to his much-neglected wife, bringing with him a beautiful young princess. Wife gets pissed. Zeus steps in and wreaks bloody revenge on everyone.
OK, it’s a very old story—a rarely produced play by Sophocles, in fact. But Alexandria-based husband-and-wife team Brian and Paula Alprin hope that their new theater company, Natural Theatricals, will do for classical Greek theater locally what the Shakespeare Theatre has done for the lesser works of the Bard.
The company’s inaugural effort, The Women of Trachis, currently in performance at the theater at Alexandria’s George Washington Masonic National Memorial, stars Paula, 45, as Deianeira, wife of the hero, Herakles; Brian, 49, takes the director’s credit.
“In times of national tragedy, Greek plays are seen as political works,” says Brian. Not wanting their fledgling company to be pigeonholed, he says they chose Trachis because “we could stage [it] purely as a domestic tragedy.” To make the performance more accessible to a modern audience, the Alprins made several tweaks to the 2,500-year-old drama.
“We sought to de-emphasize the role of the gods,” Brian, an attorney with Duane Morris, continues. “In fact, the story line makes perfect sense, even though the gods planned it. The turns of fate are the product of human factors. It is not necessary that they include divine intervention.” In another deviation from the classical text, the Greek chorus was also shrunk into one role, embodied by a character with earthly relationships to the other players.
The company’s home in the amphitheater of the Masonic Memorial was procured in a bittersweet stroke of luck. Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, Paula wrote a performance piece called Flying Lessons, which played at the memorial last spring in a benefit performance. At the time, George Seghers, executive secretary-treasurer of the memorial, was looking for a way to offer more public performances in the space, and he offered the Alprins the venue. Seizing the opportunity to found their own company, the two posted audition notices and committed their own start-up money to pay cast and crew.
The Alprins first partnered professionally two years ago on Paula’s play The Crawl-Space Waltz at Alexandria’s Old Town Theater. Paula holds a theater degree from NYU and has worked both in New York and locally as an actress, playwright, and songwriter. Brian’s only previous experience was as a fan, but his wife encouraged him to direct her when she realized his comments about the plays they saw were as insightful as those of many other directors she’d worked with.
Nevertheless, Brian will not be directing the group’s next show, Paula’s adaptation of Antigua, a modern take on the story of Antigone. The couple has recruited Cody Jones, a director and actor recently seen in the Horizons Theatre’s Unspoken Prayers, to helm the next show.
After two weeks of public performances of Trachis, the Alprins are guardedly optimistic about the future of Natural Theatricals. Audiences have been sparse, and unless admissions pick up, the production will not pay for itself.
“I would like us to provide real opportunities to new, unknown playwrights to generate work that’s thematically associated with the ancient theatrical tradition,” says Brian. As for future seasons, “there’s a hope and not a certainty. We’re conducting ourselves as if there will be.” —Janet Hopf
The Women of Trachis runs through Sunday, July 11, at George Washington Masonic National Memorial’s Indoor Amphitheatre, 101 Callahan Drive, Alexandria. For more information, call (703) 739-9338.