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The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Watching a Greek Tragedy

March 29th, 2009 (05:13 pm)

current mood: rejuvenated

I just came from the Shakespeare Theatre, where I saw an amazing production of Euripides' Ion. It's a little-known play set in Delphi, and it feels surprisingly modern.

The story centers around an act that took place years before. Hermes, messenger to the gods, recounts the backstory in the Prologue, with help from some very lifelike puppets. Yes, puppets. The daughter of the King of Athens is seduced by the god Apollo. Afraid of her father's reaction, she hides the resulting pregnancy and the birth of her son. On Apollo's instructions, she leaves the infant in a cave, assuming he will die. Apollo sends Hermes to bring the child to Delphi, where a priestess raises him in the temple to serve the god. As the action begins, the child, now grown, still works at the temple. We watch as this young man in classic Greek costume demonstrates his caretaker duties, including a raucous sequence in which he tries to scare away birds (bird puppets on wires) before they relieve themselves on the sacred site.

He hears female voices approaching, visitors to the temple, and we get our next huge laugh when a group of women arrive, wearing tacky shirts with capris pants or shorts and carrying water bottles, sunscreen, and video cameras. This is when we realize that this production is not set in Ancient Greece; it's set in a fictional version of modern Greece, one in which everyone still believes in the gods. Amazingly, this works. This is not a rewrite of Euripides, just a reinterpretation of the words on the page. The script wasn't altered to make these women into a group of tacky tourists; the costumes and props say it all. They are the servants of the daughter of the King of Athens, who has brought her retinue on an outing to the temple (which is partly in ruins, but is still in use) as a cover for the serious and secret matter she plans to take up with Apollo. She enters, dressed in a silk suit, and we learn that she's heartbroken to be childless after all these years and wants the Oracle to reveal what happened to the son she abandoned. Her serving women also function as the Chorus, goofing off when their mistress is out of earshot by chanting to the gods, singing, dancing, and joking about what they observe.

Before she can ask her question, her husband shows up. He has a question for the god, too. Unaware of his wife's past and afraid that she's barren, he wants to know if he'll have a son. She can't bear to hear the answer and leaves. When he emerges, he sees the caretaker and declares that this young man is his son, for Apollo told him it would be the first man he saw after exiting the temple.

I won't give away the details of how all this works out in the end, but it's really fun to watch it play out. And funny. For the most part, it isn't the dialogue itself that's funny. It's the actors' delivery of it, the costumes, and the context. The whole thing ends with a production number sung by the Chorus and then reprised by the entire cast. The words are from the script, but the music is most definitely not. With different instrumentation, this would make a great Motown song, complete with Jackson-5-style choreography.

I've seen Greek tragedy before and even played Antigone once. But I've never seen it done like this!

If you live in the Washington, D.C., area and like classical theatre (with a twist), you should buy tickets to this production.