If you think the GOP is sick of Michael Moore, imagine how the rulers of ancient Athens felt about Euripides. This fifth-century B.C.E. playwright repeatedly critiqued the Greek military mindset with caustic stage visions of the culture’s oldest myths. Critics have accused Euripides of overly domesticating his material, reducing high tragedy to extreme soap. But his examinations of the ways in which individuals and countries participate in their own destruction continue to resonate eerily across the centuries.
Seven of Euripides’ plays appear in abridged form in The Greeks, an account of the Trojan War and its aftermath, with related material from Homer, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. This titanic act of dramatic compression by John Barton and Kenneth Cavander, which premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979, is receiving its first full New York production by the Imua Theatre Company. Easy on the ear, epic but efficient, the 10-play cycle has been divided into two evenings; on Saturdays both parts are presented consecutively.
Part I, “The War and the Murders,” begins with King Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in exchange for fair winds to push his warships to Troy. It’s a choice that frames The Greeks‘ overriding question: Does any act—even murder—justify the destruction of a human life in response? Tracking the events of the war and ending with Agamemnon’s fatal return to the House of Atreus, Part I offers a sustained narrative focus and most of the best acting, including the impressive Karl Herlinger (Agamemnon), Eric Anderson (Odysseus), Evan Lai (Achilles), and Sandi Carroll (Hecuba). These performers keep it simple and trust the text, which in turn rewards them with credibility—no small thing in the heightened world of Greek tragedy. By Part II, they’ve all been killed off or lost at sea, and are sorely missed.
The second cycle of plays, “The Murders and the Gods,” rages with gynocentric grief, featuring the face-off between Clytemnestra and Electra, as well as the enslaved Trojan princess Andromache’s fight to save her son. These stories examine how the pursuit of revenge deadlocks the soul, so by nature they’re tough to animate onstage. Here they feel particularly stifled by some unconvincing performances. Unexpected relief arrives in the comic trifle “Helen,” which opens with the face that launched a thousand ships bitching about her post-war exile while performing her morning yoga routine. Part II concludes with a reunion scene and epilogue that prove—after so many hours of mayhem—surprisingly moving, and probably the best reason to stick out this considerably less satisfying half of the production.
Throughout The Greeks, director Kaipo Schwab keeps the tempo brisk, although his stylized moments of violence tend to convince more than the literal ones. He can deploy contemporary iconography to startling effect, as in the deus ex machina of Apollo (Keo Woolford) in Part II’s “Orestes.” But other interpretations come at the cost of emotional depth. Electra and Orestes, for example, are played as goth-metal outcasts run amok, Columbine siblings who murder out of paroxysms of self-dramatizing indignation rather than a deep sense of filial justice. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make them very interesting after about three minutes. Alluding to present-day parallels only adds to a characterization that’s grounded in a play’s original reality. Paradoxically, what makes Greek tragedy feel so relevant is its very strangeness to us. We are drawn in by this sense of the mysterious, only to be implicated later on.
Ultimately, The Greeks offers a rare, imperfect opportunity—the chance to see 40 actors performing 2,500-year-old classics for the price of a glass of wine and candy bar at a Broadway theater. Kudos to Imua and the company for running this theatrical gantlet, even if they don’t emerge entirely unscathed. As Apollo opines in “Orestes,” “Good and bad cannot be split/Conveniently and neatly.” As in life, so often in theater.