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Romeo chats on his cell phone, Madame Ranevskaya swills martinis as chain saws turn her cherry trees into firewood, Didi and Gogo await Godot in a drive-in parking lot. It sometimes seems our stage can get a clear view of its own past only through updatings and reinventions.
Usually with theater, it’s safe to say the Greeks had a word for it, but in this case they didn’t. Being inventors of the form they called drama, Aristotle and his pals were too busy creating myths to worry much about keeping them alive. It was the Romans who thought about posteritythe word “accessible” derives from Latinrevising the ancients in the name of popularizing them with theatergoers of their own time.
The directors of this week’s reconsiderations of Marlowe and Euripides are plainly seeking audience access. At Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), Rick Davis has gussied up The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus with time travel, 18 slide projectors, and a brief clip from Gone With the Wind in the interest of making a 16th-century morality tale speak to contemporary crowds. At African Continuum Theatre Company (ACTCo), Jennifer L. Nelson has taken Hecuba, the tale of a proud people reduced to slavery, and persuasively outfitted it in kente cloth.
Both stagings deserve credit for ambition and imagination, though only one approach proves terribly successful. Oddly, it’s the one that’s least faithful to its original script. ACTCo’s Hecuba features a new translation by Marilyn Nelson (the director’s sister) that includes subtle allusions to a Negro spiritual and to Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage” among its storytelling devices. The references are veiled, but they represent a significant shift in perspective on this story about the enslaving of a Greek city-statea shift that illuminates the play in unexpected and altogether salutary ways.
By contrast, TFA’s mounting of Doctor Faustus hews precisely to Marlowe’s text as it illustrates what a man loses when he sells his soul in pursuit of knowledge. The director’s strategy is to begin the story in its proper historical period and then update in stages, with the catapulting of the characters from the Middle Ages to the dawn of a new millennium almost entirely the work of TFA’s designers. Jason Rubin, Martha Mountain, and a multi-media crew headed by Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White have orchestrated a veritable full-court press of images, some three-dimensional (planetlike globes and CD-encrusted tables that dangle from the heavens), others projected onto sculptural screens that line the auditorium with what appear to be white-on-white, tome-laden bookshelves. From the outset, images march across those screens with emblematic efficiency, classical libraries giving way to starry skies, media rooms, and various icons and symbols.
If the device ultimately seems to have as much to do with stage accessorizing as with script accessibility, it certainly keeps the proceedings colorful. That’s also true of the felt and fustian contributed by costumer Howard Vincent Kurtz, whose buckskin jackets, velvet tunics, and velour business suits work as hard to establish period as do the projections to delineate place.
Somewhere in the midst of all this ornate display, Edward Gero’s feverishly learning-crazed Faustus ignores the warnings of a nattily attired Chorus (Marty Lodge) and falls prey to the schemes of Mephastophilis (Timmy Ray James), Lucifer (Hugh Nees), Belzebub (Lawrence Redmond), and an arrogant servant named Wagner (Jonathan Tindle). That cast list reads like a Who’s Who of D.C.’s most respected leading men, and, to a devil, they’re all doing credible work. Still, they’re hamstrung by an unfocused script that doesn’t let them connect very often with anything resembling emotion.
Marlowe’s version of the Faust legend isn’t nearly as involving as Goethe’s, but it had the virtue of comparative proximity, having been written within a few decades of the death of Johann Faust, the wandering conjurer and entertainer whose name became inextricably linked with the devil after the story of his adventures was published in Frankfurt in 1587. Marlowe’s dramatization, based on an English translation of those adventures, hit the London stage just three years later, predating the more popular German stage versions by almost two centuries.
Perhaps because Goethe tinkered with his Faust for more than 50 years, his retelling of the legend ended up substantially clearer and better motivated than Marlowe’s. The Elizabethan take on the story is dramatically scattered, with the corruption of its Doctor Faustus far more sharply dramatized than his attempt to salvage his soul. Because Marlowe could count on audiences’ seeing the play’s moral questions in stark blacks and whites, for instance, he apparently didn’t feel compelled to articulate why the good doctor, having gained everything he was after, bothers to wrestle with repentance. Consequently, the character’s moral struggle, which has barely been hinted at all evening, seems to come out of nowhere, arriving only in the play’s final moments, and getting resolved entirely too quickly by authorial fiat.
Shakespeare Theatre stalwart Gero does what he can to suggest a complex, thoughtful individual in a title role that’s more acted-upon than active. And he and his compatriots make easy sense of the director’s modernist flights of fancy, as when someone says, “Take this book,” and proffers a Powerbook laptop. A bit of comic overemphasis in minor roles notwithstanding, the show is well acted, but in both concept and execution, it’s designed more as a showcase for theatrical technique than for performance.
Quite the opposite is true of ACTCo’s Hecuba, which is being sparely mounted in a classroom-sized space on the second floor of Arena Stage’s Living Stage headquarters. Apart from fabric draped over columns by scenic designer Tom Donahue, and the sharply angled lighting Dan Covey uses to cast tragic shadows, there’s very little in the way of production values to Jennifer L. Nelson’s staging.
But lord, what movement and passion can do when turned loose in so small a space. Especially in the service of an idea that seems so natural, as articulated by adaptor Marilyn Nelson in her program notes, that you can’t help wondering why it hasn’t occurred to others.
Nelson writes that she was reading African-American slave narratives for a graduate seminar when she first began translating Euripides’ classic, and that she immediately heard echoes of her course work in the Greek tragedy. Here was a great queen, her nobility reduced to rags, her people enslaved, “children torn from their arms and sold, lovers beaten and sold or murdered, their very bodies a badge of inferiority.” Might not the experience of African-Americans be a useful reference point for the story, she wondered?
Wisely, she doesn’t make much of modern resonances in her vernacular translation. Lean too heavily on the parallels, after all, and they’ll start to crumble around the edges. The wartime slavery practiced by ancient Greek city-states wasn’t really comparable to the colonial genocide practiced some two millennia later by European slave traders. But there are overlaps in terms of barbarity, bondage, and bereavementenough that the perspective of African-American interpreters, both on- and offstage, can certainly provide a window on Hecuba’s tragedy.
The play begins as the Greek army is preparing to sail home after the Trojan war, taking with it the Trojan women who will become their slaves. Told that Greek hero Agamemnon plans to sacrifice her daughter Polyxena, Troy’s Queen Hecuba (Cheryl Collins) is understandably distraught. Polyxena (Lisa Biggs), however, turns out to be made of pretty stern stuff. After a moment of despair, she consoles her mother by pointing out that she’ll at least escape bondagemuch the same point that Sethe makes in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “You will remain a slave,” Polyxena tells Hecuba, “while I, with my throat slashed, will die and be free.”
This consolation proves small when Polyxena’s brother is also killed, not by Greeks but by the guardians who were supposed to be protecting him from harm. With her children thus sacrificed on the twin altars of politics and greed, Hecuba is pretty much obligated by the rules of Greek tragedy to plot a revenge that will offer the audience some measure of catharsis. Trust to Euripides. She does herself proud.
Jennifer Nelson’s staging makes smart use of rhythmic chants and the slap of bare feet against floorboards to give the play a ritualistic feel. And working with costumer Claudine Mveng, she’s found a host of specifically African visual devicesmasks, patchwork dashikis, strings of tiny scarlet beads that become rivulets of blood on the cheeks of a man whose eyes have been put outthat effectively remake the story in a non-Greek context without violating the text.
The production is blessed with strong performances throughout, and genuinely rending ones by Collins and Biggs, who bring enormous passion to the harrowing declarations of their characters. All of which suggests that ACTCo, which has struggled and stumbled during its brief history as a producing organization, may finally have found its footing. Certainly, this production marks a company high point and a major accomplishment for all concerned.CP