Peter Sellars always wants his theater to be a window onto the world. The Children of Herakles, a three-part essay on the plight of refugees in today’s war-torn global landscape, is his response to September 11. The American Repertory Theatre production, which premiered last fall at the Ruhr Triennial festival in Germany and subsequently played Paris and Rome, marks the first professional U.S. staging of Euripides’ 2400-year-old play. More than a night out at the theater, the show is designed like a graduate seminar. The program begins with a panel discussion moderated by local broadcast journalist Christopher Lydon, who interviews experts (45 policy makers, relief workers, and scholars take turns during the run, which ends January 25) and refugees currently living in Boston. After a coffee break, the two-hour play is performed by a multiracial cast, including a couple dozen local refugee youths in the nonspeaking roles of the Greek superhero’s offspring. Then food is served, and the audience is invited to watch one of several recent films reflecting contemporary refugee culture. It’s an ambitious undertaking for the ART, whose founder Robert Brustein last year handed over the reins to new artistic director Robert Woodruff, and an honorable gesture in the direction of the “instructive theater” championed by Brecht. But by the time I use the expression “good intentions,” you know where the rest of this review is headed, don’t you?
It’s not much of a stretch to find contemporary resonance in Euripides’ play. The descendants of Herakles flee their homeland after his death, fearing the wrath of his enemy Eurystheus, who’s determined to exterminate them and threatens any principality that gives them shelter. As the play begins, a uniformed guard herds nine dark-skinned adolescents in street clothes representing the Heracleidae into a neon-outlined square center stage. This holding area also contains a carpeted throne occupied by Ulzhan Baibussynova, a singer and two-stringed-dombra player whose Kazakh folk tunes stand in for choral odes and who serves tacitly as temple priestess. Iolaus, Herakles’ right-hand man, who has assumed responsibility as protector of the clan, is played by Czech actor Jan Triska in a wheelchair. Approaching Athens for asylum, he is stopped by Eurystheus’ special envoy Copreus (Elaine Tse), a drably dressed bureaucrat with briefcase who shouts at him through a microphone.
Raised by the ruckus, the king (here called president) of Athens appears in the person of Brenda Wehle, who speaks with the reassuring, detached concern of a customer service representative. She is persuaded to offer the wanderers a safe haven, even though this means war with Eurystheus. The oracles she consults decree that victory requires the sacrifice of a noble virgin. When Herakles’ daughter Macaria volunteers, the audience is clearly meant to associate her with a Palestinian martyr prepared to go to heaven with explosives hidden under her jeans and T-shirt. (Tiny Julyana Soelistyo, as Macaria, is one of the few actresses capable of embodying purity without coming off saccharine.) The vanquished yet unrepentant Eurystheus (Romanian actor Cornel Gabara) is marched onstage blindfolded and manacled wearing an orange jumpsuit to testify behind a Plexiglas shield. He is confronted by Herakles’ mother, Alcmene (Soelistyo again), a fist-faced fury in a chador who demands that he be turned over to her for execution. The Athenians acquiesce, provided that “the president is cleared of all responsibility,” the line that abruptly ends the play.
The production’s topicality is theoretically supportable as a way of enlivening an ancient text (although Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw’s Medea currently on Broadway hardly needs to be prefaced by a panel on “Mothers Who Kill”). This is Sellars’s trademark style, with which he’s created many admirable stage pieces. But the performance of The Children of Herakles I attended felt like a series of misfires. Rather than opening up discussion, the pre-play panel stultified the audience with platitudes and propaganda that patronizingly pegged refugees as nothing more than helpless victims. Sellars’s “hey-cool-Euripides-watched-CNN” staging of the play kept the audience busy making reductive equations that served neither Euripides nor our understanding of what’s at stake for refugees. With the exception of Soelistyo, the actors gave crude, over-emphatic performances. The Brechtian elements that conceptually challenged the audience to question repeatedly clashed with Sellars’s efforts to make the play a redemptive religious ceremony. Not once but twice he sent his squadron of refugee youth out to shake hands with ART spectators. These interludes were meant to resemble the we-are-all-one moment in church services where you turn and greet the people around you, but they came off as sanctimonious and exploitative. If the show were truly honest, the kids would be selling stuff to the Americans.
I guess that is what happened after the show, when a Bosnian restaurateur dished out yummy $6 plates of potato fritters and spicy ajvar. The communal bread-breaking would have been a good opportunity for the audience to socialize with the performers, if any of them had shown their faces. And there may have been a handful of people with the stamina to stay and watch Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog’s 1992 documentary about the burning oil fields of Kuwait, but by 11:30 most of us had used up the day’s supply of idealism.