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Herb Foster, Henry Stram, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Henry Strozier
in The Persians
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Tony Randall, founder, artistic director, and tireless prime mover of the National Actors Theatre, is on local screens currently in a version of the role that made him a sought-after second leading man for '50s romantic comedies. The title of the flick is Down With Love. On stage this year, however, Randall is pressing a much darker slogan: Down With Tyranny.

The first of this season's NAT productions was Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which follows the flash-in-the-pan history of a tyrant. For the company's second and final presentation, Randall has selected Aeschylus's 472 B.C. drama, The Persians. The play unfolds on the day when Xerxes's court counselors learn that the assault on Greece which they have championed, and from which they expect added glory, has failed. They also learn that the returning Xerxes is one of the few survivors -- perhaps the sole survivor -- of the company of men he led into combat.

Randall's choice of the anti-war drama is obviously no accident. One of seven extant plays by Aeschylus, The Persians is also generally believed to be the earliest. (Some scholars claim The Suppliants was written earlier.) So it could be said that, where theater literature is concerned, The Persians is the oldest story ever told.

It also must have struck Randall as just about the newest story ever told; there's no mistaking the play's timeliness in the wake of the second Gulf War. Not when the present administration dispatched soldiers to the part of the globe formerly known as Persia with the expectation of swift victory -- a victory achieved but not without continuing reprisals both domestic and foreign as well as continuing questions about the pretexts under which the invasion was ordered.

If Arturo Ui director Simon McBurney took pains to stress the similarity between that play's portrait of Nazi Germany and today's situation through tactics such as flashing images of the Constitution on the set, Persians director Ethan McSweeny suggests the connection between then and now by projecting a map of Persia's territorial holdings at the time of the naval battle that Xerxes waged at Salamis. The large, blue mass seen is patently meant to bring to mind United States global dominance and, of course, to hint that its lasting is not assured.

To drive the point home even more resonantly, McSweeny also sends out his chorus in contemporary street clothes. They impart background on the play: "Aeschylus was born near Athens in 525 B.C.," the first of them (Michael Potts) tells us. In particular, the men point out that the playwright himself was a participant at Marathon in 490 B.C. and at Salamis in 480 B.C., and that the report of battle in the play is, therefore, a first-hand account. After Ellen McLaughlin, whose adaptation this is, has finished with the brief bio and the substantiation of Aeschylus's right as warrior and dramatist to tell the story, the men of the chorus don the robes that Jess Goldstein has designed for them and begin the play.

Since the ground-breaking dramatist was establishing the format for Greek tragedy that Sophocles and Euripides adapted and altered, he has the chorus converse grandly; they seem somewhat apprehensive, yet they behave with as much upbeat bonhomie as Republicans at a pin-the-tail-on-Bill-and-Hillary-Clinton party. "Defeat is impossible," they boast in the persons of actors Potts, Jon DeVries, Henry Stram, Herb Foster, Henry Strozier, Charles Turner and Ed Dixon. "Defeat is unthinkable," they continue in stentorian tones. "We have always been the favorites of fate. Fortune has cupped us in her golden palms."

Think again, men! Their exuberant mood is interrupted by Attosa (Roberta Maxwell), widow of the dead Persian king Darius. She has had a premonitory dream of defeat suffered by her son, Xerxes, and her account of it makes the counselors increasingly less certain about the campaign's outcome. Then, confirming their worst misgivings, a herald (Brennan Brown) arrives with news of the lost battle and Darius himself (Len Cariou) returns from the spirit realm. Finally, the exhausted and contrite Xerxes (Michael Stuhlbarg) abjectly stumbles on to be rebuked by his cabinet and to insist on a redemptive ceremony.

Roberta Maxwell and Len Cariou in The Persians
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Language and outsized emotion are the things with Aeschylus, and director McSweeny sees to it that these demands are served -- perhaps to a fault, since it's possible there's more declaiming here than was called for in Aeschylus's Festival of Dionysus venues. Do we know for certain that the outdoor setting, the jovial atmosphere, and the masks from behind which actors spoke demanded unabated declamation? Roberta Maxwell, resplendent on her first entrance in a gilded cylindrical crown and matching gown, seems to think she must blare; and Brennan Brown, begrimed and wearing tattered fatigue precursors, is under the same impression.

What both of them have to recount is urgent, and before they depart (Maxwell appears more than once), they do find nuances in their doleful lines of antique poetry. "Last night, I saw Xerxes whipping two frothing horses bloody, two horses he should have never have put in harness together," Maxwell gets to utter. "Happiest are those who die quickly. Only a handful of us made it through all of that, and we cannot look at each other...We have seen too much," Brown recounts as he departs in despair.

As Darius, Len Cariou -- who only a few weeks ago was speaking in a French accent for the Encores! No Strings -- is a noble Darius, and Michael Stuhlbarg an even nobler Xerxes. How generous of Aeschylus to give the monarch against whom he and his compatriots fought such moral fiber. Running sand that Kevin Adams's lights have stained red through his fingers, Stuhlbarg as the humbled Xerxes cries, "Pity me, your destroyer. O pity for the suffering I have unleashed. Pity for all your dead sons." Stuhlbarg is one of Manhattan's finest unsung actors; when he grieves here, he elicits the properly piteous response that Aeschylus and disciples sought as an important objective for tragedy.

To disseminate his message, Randall has either spared little expense or hired, with McSweeny, a design team able to make it seem as if no expense has been spared. James Noone's set seems simple at first glance, since all he has done with the thrust stage at Pace University's Michael Shimmel Center is set low, straight-backed black chairs randomly on it. When Attosa enters upstage and walks down a ramp, she steps on ornate carpets -- Persian rugs, you could say. When an upstage scrim is raised, however, a black grill is revealed, behind which are intermittently flashing lights.

At corners of the stage, percussionists Greg Beyer and David Shively work in what seem like jungle gyms to interpret Michael Roth's rumbling music. Occasionally, cellist Mairi Dorman adds mournful strains to a play that not only mourns the past but also means to mourn the dire consequences of mistakes made in the future by governing bodies confident of their own infallibility. This new production of The Persians is a clarion reminder that what was true 472 B.C. seems every bit as true in 2003 A.D.

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