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In this unusual new work, Kelly Cooper and Pavol Liska use ancient Greek texts to comment on the war in Iraq. logo
Tony Torn, Juliana Francis, Zachary Oberzan in Fragment
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Though most Americans have no direct experience of the carnage in Iraq, we all feel its influence in our daily lives. Classic Stage Company's production of Fragment, created by writer Kelly Cooper and director Pavol Liska, engages us with timeless concerns about civilian life during a time of war, using fragments of lost plays by the ancient Greek writers Euripides and Sophocles.

As the show begins and we see Peter Nigrini's set, resembling a hotel conference room with a cheese table on one end of the room and a wine table on the other, it's immediately clear that we're in for a thinly veiled commentary on America in 2006. Soon, three unnamed characters emerge from the audience and begin talking about what to do while their countrymen are fighting abroad. Is the army in Troy, Persia, or Sparta? It's never specified, and it hardly matters in a play that embraces anachronism.

Actor 1 (Zachary Oberzan) is a pontificating nihilist who justifies his inaction with high-minded theory while making constant use of the wine bar. Actor 2 (Tony Torn) is a hedonist who believes that "not to be aware when one is in trouble has a certain pleasure." He can usually be seen filling up on cake at one of the refreshment stands. The two men compete for the attention of Actor 3 (Juliana Francis), a prim advocate of civic duty who spends most of her time turning down their advances.

Don't look for a narrative arc here; the show is long on profound statements and short on dramatic content. Still, it's thrilling how strongly these 2,500-year-old writings resonate today. The Greeks used the theater as a forum for civic dialogue, and Fragment honors that tradition. Liska has done a great service in rescuring these texts from complete obscurity and, fortunately, he's not afraid to treat them irreverently. For example, he interprets the line "I am undone" as a cue for one of the characters to zip up his fly.

Oberzan, the least well known of the actors, gives the most memorable performance because he is fully at ease with the playfulness of the script. Torn is hilarious, not to mention brave, here; Liska has the hefty actor stripping down to his underpants and wielding a carrot as a phallus. Francis has a beautiful moment towards the end of the play, when a personal tragedy of her character is revealed.

Pavol Liska's work has been seen everywhere from Boston to Oklahoma; Fragment will once again cause the director to be labeled a genius by some and a naked emperor by others, but everyone should agree that these shreds of ancient Greek texts are remarkably pertinent to our present situation.

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