In Tom Stoppard’s wondrous play Arcadia, the precocious Thomasina bewails the burning of Alexander’s library. “All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—thousands of poems. . . . How can we sleep for grief?” Her tutor, Septimus, gently answers her, “By counting our stock. Seven from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, 19 from Euripides, my lady.” Septimus’s words are reassuring, but he neglects to mention a further possession, the scraps of the lost plays, some 5,000 of them. This incomplete treasure trove has not escaped the notice of director Pavol Liska and playwright Kelly Copper, who have fashioned a new theater work, Fragment, from the morsels of Sophocles and Euripides that remain.
Rather than contextualizing the individual lines or fitting them to a narrative—familiar or original—Liska and Copper have taken a rather Dadaist approach to the text. In a method redolent of Tristan Tzara’s composing poems by pulling words randomly from a hat, Copper has in many cases further snipped each ancient snippet and reconfigured the words as speeches pronounced by three actors: Juliana Francis, Zachary Oberzan, and Tony Torn.
Don’t look for the cast to appear in period costume. Chitons, cothurni, and outsize masks fail to materialize. Rather the actors, attired in business casual, blend in with the audience, occasionally retaking their seats in the first row. Otherwise, they stroll about the stage, which is arrayed with the detritus of an after-play reception on the cheap—plates of cheese cubes, rumpled tablecloths, bottles of Turning Leaf chardonnay. Apparently Liska means to suggest that any of us—sufficiently moved and with the appropriate vocabulary—might well burst into ancient verse, that these fragments of the Greeks might appear in our own discourse. Certainly lines such as “What should I do?” or even “The best thing is cake” have the ring of the familiar.
Yet the language and syntax remain antiquated. Though Liska and Copper seem to envision the script as a discussion between the actors about the state of the world and the men and women in it, often one line has not very much to do with another, and the arguments relate only tangentially, rendering the play not so much a conversation as a series of aphoristic outbursts. The actors all speak with energy and conviction (Torn, impish and insinuating, is unbearably good), but the hunger for just a snippet of narrative or a dollop of sustained argument doesn’t diminish. Admittedly, it’s refreshing to see and hear Greek verse presented so casually and Liska is clearly undaunted by the texts’ pedigree. But though the words themselves can occasionally intoxicate, without the added attractions of incest, parricide, and self-slaughter, they’re just so much indifferent chardonnay.