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More timely than ever, Athenian classics storm New York stages

To go by the sheer number of Greek characters traipsing across our stages right now, the ancients have become our truest contemporaries. Though we're still a month away from the release of Oliver Stone's Alexander (starring Colin Farrell in a mini-tunic), New York is already in the grip of a classical revival. The Hellenic Festival (presented by the New York Public Library) has just kicked off a lecture and multi-arts program that celebrates the birthplace of Western culture. From choreographer Jane Comfort, who recently unveiled her Persephone at the Joyce, to performance artist John Kelly, who's reviving his Orpheus-inspired Find My Way Home this winter, everyone's getting into the Athenian act.

With an October lineup that includes three productions of Aristophanes (Lysistrata, Acharnians, and Peace), at least one Euripides (Hecuba), and two works inspired by Sophocles (The Antigone Project and The Gospel at Colonus), Off-Broadway seems to have gone retro in the extreme. Between the threat of terrorism and the war in Iraq, we're all apparently in desperate need of a whopping catharsis—or at least a few old-comedy laughs at the rulers driving us to the brink of catastrophe.

But what sort of guidance do we hope to get from our illustrious Attic predecessors? Clearly it's something more than a moldy lesson on hubris. We come seeking enlightenment, never mind that we haven't a clue how to stage the tragedies, and the comedies pose translation challenges more baffling than any Sphinx (topical jokes apparently lose their freshness after 2,500 years). Tell us, revered Greeks, how our society can escape its current nightmare. Hell, for the promise of a little consciousness-raising, we'll even sit yet again through the saga of an unfortunate king whose old lady turned out to be his mama.

Vengeance is mine: Kristin Linklater and Curzon Dobell in Hecuba
photo: David Gochfeld
Vengeance is mine: Kristin Linklater and Curzon Dobell in Hecuba

The irony—a Greek specialty—is that, in our headlong rush for classical wisdom, we sometimes forget that the ancients were every bit as stumbling as we are. By the time Euripides was in his prime, Athenian glory was already in decline, thanks to an imperial foreign policy, the repealing of civil liberties that seems always to accompany war, and perhaps most corrosive of all, the debasement of language by those prepared to distort reality to further their own selfish political ends.

In Paideia, the monumental study of the relation between ancient Greek character and culture, Werner Jaeger describes (by way of Thucydides) how "leaders, both democrats and aristocrats, constantly repeated the catchwords of their parties, but were not really fighting for any high ideal. Greed, ambition, and the lust for power were the only motives for action, and when the old political ideals were brought up they were used only as shibboleths for this or that party."

Chillingly familiar? Yet the one great difference that separates their tarnished Golden Age from our own gold-plated one is the presence of contemporary artists like Euripides and Aristophanes to raise questions about the warping of democratic values and ideals. If the tragedies and comedies suddenly seem so pertinent now, it's not because they have answers for our particular woes, but because they were written in a similar state of roiling frustration and turmoil. Their legacy of critical imagination and dissenting intellect is their chief gift to us—even if, in their own day anyway, they had little effect on the maniacal turn in historical events.

For Loretta Greco, the new artistic director of the Women's Project, returning to the Greeks via modern-day adaptations of Antigone seemed like an ideal way to open her first season. The idea, conceived by Chiori Miyagawa and Sabrina Peck, was to ask five playwrights (Tanya Barfield, Karen Hartman, Miyagawa, Lynn Nottage, and Caridad Svich) to "redream the Sophocles myth" into 15-minute plays." Greco then brought on five directors (Annie Dorsen, Dana Iris Harrel, Anna Kauffman, Barbara Rubin, and Liesl Tommy) to stage the results. (The production, which began previews last week, opens on Monday and runs through November 7.)

"It had been years since I'd read the Sophocles, and what struck me, beyond the play's structural elegance, was how contemporary it felt," says Greco. "A woman radically stands up to authority and ends up making a difference. Given the political climate today, I find it hopeful to remember the power of an individual female voice. I also wanted to create an event that would allow for dialogue between our audience and these 10 fantastic theater artists who are all women and whose voices need to be heard."

Attraction to the classics isn't always this upbeat. The Greeks may avoid sensationally dramatizing atrocity onstage, but their tragedies derive their subjects from a catalog of the very worst of what human beings are capable of.

None more so, perhaps, than Hecuba, Euripides' portrayal of the fallen Trojan queen who, after seeing her daughter sacrificed for the ghost of Achilles and discovering the dead body of her son, whose care she had entrusted to her old ally Polymestor, plots a course of heinous revenge. Conspiring with her attendant women, she not only slaughters Polymestor's two young sons but gouges out his eyes with her broaches.

Ever alert to the way unchecked victimization can give rise to retaliatory horror, Euripides shrewdly implicates his audience in the climactic savagery. Just as he makes us complicit with Medea's revenge against her faithless husband only to shock us with the monstrous butchery of her children, so he aligns our sympathy with the grief-stricken Hecuba, turning us all into her silent accomplices. At the end of the play, Polymestor issues an oracular warning that the Trojan queen will be transformed into a yelping dog for her deeds, and we, who've been baying for blood alongside her, can't help feeling the terror of his canine prophecy.

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