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The Persians, by Aeschylus

A New Version by Ellen McLaughlin, directed by Ethan McSweeney
SHAKESPEARE THEATER COMPANY. (Running through May 21, 2006.)

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri


Aeschylus was born in 525. B.C.E., and he died in 456. This play premiered in 472 B.C.E. It is the oldest surviving play in western literature, and for that alone, the audience feels honored. Here is a drama where the production wins the day. If ever it were to succeed, it does so in director McSweeney’s hands.

The cast comes in present day garb (our clue that this history is relevant to us,) and as they add robes to their attire, each tells the story of war, “And the silence moved in,” then speaking of war’s ruin. The text is poetic and while this adds to the stateliness of the piece, my preference is poetry on the page, and psychology on the stage. Yet the words are good ones, and even translators can only reform what Aeschylus wrote. For all the sentiments of grief and emotion, the text is never maudlin.

The use of percussion is a character on stage; and sound becomes a background for emotions in the same way Beckett used light.  The production is spectacular. A spectacle from the beginning – with moving film of the world, a backdrop surround, with macro close-ups of ancient territories. Then, a filmed procession of ancient statuaries (Greek? Persian, but interchangeable for purposes of the play’s theme.) The film is replaced with angled Mylar, mirror reflecting portions of actors on stage. And when the Queen arrives, the scrim rolls up, the carpets down  -- and over the red sand is a remarkable entry of glitter and power. This costumery tells the story as the Queen’s next entrance is in shrouds of black for the grief that has befallen her Persia  (once “The favorite of fates”) at the hand of the Athenians. Helen Carey is magnificent as Atossa, equally convincing in her power and in her loss.

“Where is this Athens?” asks the Queen, well knowing that whoever conquered Athens would rule the world. The messenger arrives to say that all is lost, and we have a plaintive soliloquy by the Queen about words being tiny paltry things in the face of tragedy -- a nice piece -- in itself, proving words are not paltry at all. Yet the play is declarative and all the production in the world cannot change that. It is didactic so what can a Director do even with a pretty text? He went for spectacle and the uses of red, in light. As the backset turns slowly crimson, we understand the living who died staggering home, drinking sand for water. The words “We will never look at anything squarely again” are wonderful and ring all the more painfully for the fact that humankind continues exactly in this same tradition of war and death.

Aeschylus is warning his own Greek people to see what happened to the Persians, and what is in store for greedy imperialists who seek an empire from the rubble of war.

The text is an extended rumination of war, and one hour is spent asking the gods what went wrong, The Queen’s son, Xerxes, the only survivor is seen to blame (although condemned by exactly the elders on stage who had advised him.) At times the text is sung and an operatic tone shifts the energy to the good. Sound predominates when, one by one, chairs are upturned, thrown down, for the value added of assonance and space.

Darius, the- ghost-of-King-Past, is summoned from the dead through prayer, and he comes but for a short time. When learning of his son’s ambitions and folly, his words are like a self-help book; however we can be easily won back by a line like “Death is long and without music.” Some of these writings resound from great poetry already written and yet, in this frame, are badly needed. 

There are beautiful moments of light where a hologram illuminates Xerxes’ return (played well by Erin Gann.) We wish the villain were not wearing camouflage pants—too remindful of our own soldiers who are far from the villains in today’s blood bath. The “Herald” who survived as messenger, previously arrived wearing a top reminiscent of Viet Nam garb. Someone in the audience wondered if there were a veiled message about V.N. warriors who returned to an unwelcoming society.  He was skillfully played by Scott Parkinson.

The Queen/mother speaks of ‘the shattered son shattered of a shattered county.” This is when McLaughlin is at her best. In the conclusion of the drama, the dead are honored by grief -- histrionic but for the cello that makes a sound deeper than incantation. Xerxes asks that all lead him home. Darius had spoken of the wilderness in his son’s heart that can be cured by a mother’s guidance. And thus Xerxes is led by hand to his home -- (we imagine) -- the home of “self-knowledge” prophesied by his father.

Director, Ethan McSweeney; Set Designer James Noone; Costume Designer Jess Goldstein; Lighting Designer, Kevin Adams; Composer & Musical Director & Sound Score, Michael Roth; Projection Designer, Michael Clark; Choreographer, Marcela Lorca.


Grace Cavalieri is a Playwright, a Poet, and Producer of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" on public radio.

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