Take ancient Greek tragedy and the Iraq War, squeeze them together in a Dunkin’ Donuts box, and the disconcerting, dangerously volatile object you find yourself holding will be the metaphoric equivalent of John Jesurun’s Philoktetes, now at Soho Rep. See it performed and you’ll find it setting off small detonations in your mind for days afterward. Like Charles Mee and others, Jesurun has found in the Trojan War myth an analogy for our own Middle Eastern disaster, but where Mee collages systematically, in chunks, Jesurun works insidiously, by what you might call cultural seepage. Philoktetes, the master archer, has cluelessly violated a sacred shrine and been punished with a snakebite wound that leaves him too malodorous for his fellow soldiers to tolerate; they abandon him on a deserted island, but can’t win the war without his magic bow, so Odysseus and young Neoptolemus arrive to trick him out of it.
Sophocles, dramatizing the story, gave the three characters equal moral weight; Gide found existential virtue in it; Edmund Wilson read it as a parable of the creative psyche. Jesurun tests the myth against our corrupting, unprincipled time, structuring his scenes sequentially but wrenching them, cubistically, into patterns that question the narrative, delve deeper in it, or twist its context violently back and forth from ancient to modern. On his usual bare rectangle of stage, backed by projections of rippling water or falling bombs, his three actors spew out the firecracker-snappy exchanges and the brain-rattling, roller-coaster tirades that are the twin mirror balls in Jesurun’s disco palace of wordplay. The combination of tragic matrix and political urgency gives the verbal frenzies exceptional stature. Death-haunted yet wackily funny, impossible to pin down to easy meanings, the work’s reverberant, quicksilver flood of phrases is hypnotic on the ear and a tonic for the alert mind. Louis Cancelmi, a late replacement in the cast, barrels through the marathon title role with an assured intensity; that itself deserves a medal.