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Jolie Garrett in
The Cure at Troy
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Philoctetes got one of the worst deals in all of Greek drama, right up there with the guy who was chained to the rock and had his liver eaten by a bird every day. En route to fight the Trojan war, Philoctetes is bitten in the foot by a poisonous snake. His comrades, irritated by his wails of pain and grossed out by the smell of his infected foot, abandon the poor guy on the Island of Lemnos. There, he stumbles around in a haze of agony and resentment for about a decade, remaining alive thanks to a magic bow inherited from Heracles (that's a whole other story). Finally, Odysseus, one of the gang who abandoned Philoctetes, returns to Lemnos to fetch him--not out of remorse, but because a prophecy said that he and his fancy bow were needed to win the war.

Odysseus' return to Lemnos accompanied by young Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, is the stuff of The Cure at Troy, a translation of Sophocles' Philoctetes by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Story-wise, the play is about whether or not Odysseus and Neoptolemus will manage to trick, cajole, or bully Philoctetes back into the war; substantially, it's about whether or not Philoctetes can swallow his pride and resentment enough to accept the role the fates have assigned to him. Yes, this is a dense, Sophoclean drama--the kind of play that can feel dead, something that sits there and radiates symbolism, to be admired but not actually enjoyed.

Two things keep Blue Heron's The Cure at Troy from such a fate. One is Heaney's language, the other is Jolie Garrett in the lead as Philoctetes. I can't say that I heard every word of Heaney's translation, since I kept missing lines while writing down the previous one. "My life has been one long, cruel parody," says Philoctetes. "This is the last stand and I haven't even an arrow--all I have is a wound." I don't know what these laments sound like in Greek, but in Heaney's English they are real and deep. "All I have is a wound." Poor son of a bitch.

It helps that Garrett elevates Philoctetes to a Lear-ian level of delirium. He cackles and cries and curses, filling up the tiny stage with a mountain of grief. There's no doubt that the performance is very big and broad: Garrett wails like a beast, hollers and spits, grimaces and gesticulates. But consider that he's a playing a character who was horribly betrayed by his best friends, not to mention that he still suffers from a decade-old, untreated wound. So Garrett can be forgiven for choosing to play Philoctetes as a bit of a madman; it would be unrealistic if a man subjected to such trials were to stand there all stoic and self-possessed like an action hero. When Garrett's Philoctetes stumbles to the ground and begs Neoptolemus to take him home, we don't see Sophocles' metaphoric surrender of nature to civilization. Rather, we see a shipwreck of a man, smelly and half-wild with loneliness and terror, begging pitifully to reclaim at least some of his humanity.

Not everything in this production is as good as Garrett; in fact, nothing else even comes close. Ian Oldaker is adequate as Neoptolemus but plays him as overly stiff. Yes, the character is the son of Achilles and every inch a soldier, but his own momentous inner struggle (how to obey orders and also do right by Philoctetes?) rarely registers fully on Oldaker's face. Even worse, Rainard Rachele's Odysseus has absolutely no sense of an inner life whatsoever. Played as a manipulative weasel by Rachele, this cunning warrior seems to be exactly the soulless betrayer that Philoctetes thinks he is, but it's hard to imagine that either Sophocles or Heaney wanted the character to appear so uncomplicated.

Karla Hendrick, Sue Berch, and Margot White, who make up the chorus and also represent the Greek army, are fine. For one thing, they do not chant annoyingly in unison like so many Greek choruses have chanted annoyingly in unison before them. But director Kevin Osborne might have made more of a distinction between the ensemble as chorus and the ensemble as the army; the three women wear the same costumes throughout the play, which is a bit confusing.

Considering that he was asked to design a barren island, Roman Tatarowicz's sets and lighting are okay; Fang-Yi Tseng's costumes work well; the sound design of Nick Fritsch and Vivian Stoll is supportive and non-showy. But Heaney and Garrett are the twin stars of this production. Even if most of the other elements rarely rise to their level, listening to Garrett's tortured hero mouth Heaney's poetry is more than worth the trip to Lemnos.

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