Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday Night on the Lower East Side: SummerStage and the Faux-Real Theatre Company present Aeschylus' "Seven Against Thebes" at East River Park

Tonight we were at the East River Park Amphitheater for the last SummerStage show of the 2011 season, and what a show it was: an utterly breathtaking presentation of Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes with a brilliant, feisty and fearless all-female cast of twelve reveling in song, dance and combat.

This hypnotic performance by the Faux-Real Theatre Company kept us transfixed and left us astonished at how they could breathe life into this rarely performed Greek drama. Directed deftly by Mark Greenfield, assisted by Alessandra DeMeo, with terrific costumes by Loren Bevans, astonishing masks by Lynda White, and set pieces by Michael Casselli, Seven Against Thebes provided us with a muscular, thrilling evening of theater.

There was a kind of end-of-summer sadness as we walked over the Delancey Street overpass over the FDR Drive after being deposited by the M14D bus. This was the first summer production where it seemed too cool for us to wear shorts, and it was already pretty dark well before the 8 p.m. start of the show. (We could have used a hoodie over our T-shirt, too.) But we got a seat on the first three benches below the amphtitheater's main audience walkway and were soon caught up in the Dionysian pre-play of revels of the cast, which included lusty shouting and dancing, wine guzzling, and devouring barbecued meat, which the only male, dressed as an ancient Greek man with wild white hair and beard, offered some of us.

He turned out to be the playwright Aeschylus, and he introduced the drama by explaining that of course all of the Greek audience knew the plot and how it ended, so he brought the audience up to date as some of the cast did a quick pantomime summary of the action. Aeschylus complained (rightly, we think) that the later popularity of Sophocles' Antigone led someone or other to interpose a new ending featuring Antigone and Ismene, as if to make the less-revered Seven Against Thebes a mere prequel.

When we read this play on our own as a teenager in a mass-market paperback of all of Aeschylus' extant works, it seemed distinctly inferior to the Orestia trilogy and to a play like Antigone, which we've happily taught for the past five years, which has half a dozen complex, well-delineated characters. In contrast, Seven Against Thebes has (if you eliminate the ending with Antigone and Ismene) only one named character, their brother, Eteocles, king of Thebes, who's reneged on his power-sharing arrangement (one year off, one year on) with his brother Polynices (or Polynieces), who's now joined the Argive forces invading Thebes, domain of the doomed house of Laius and Oedipus, at the city-state's seven gates.

On the page, the play is filled with some interesting stuff, but a lot of is cataloging: recitals of the Greek gods the chorus calls on to protect the city and of the seven Argive warriors leading the charge at each gate and the seven Theban defenders chosen to meet them in battle. To be a successful production -- we could find no record of this play being produced in New York (at least according to the Times) before the 1990s -- Seven Against Thebes must be transformed, as the Faux-Real Theatre Company does in spades here, into an imaginative spectacle,

with a frenzy of colorful warriors in combat, sizzling dances, impassioned choral readings, and the grandeur and terror that can convey the life-and-death struggle of a city besieged by terrorists (not long after the Greeks have repelled the Persian invaders) and of an accursed royal family that the drama was in ancient Athens.

We didn't have a program, so we've gotten the cast list from the Faux-Real website: Layna Fisher, Robin Fusco, Jenni Graham, Ebony Hatchett, Laura E. Johnston, Joy Kelly, Colleen McGloin, Erica Lauren McLaughlin, Alexandra Milne, Chrysten Peddie, Evgeniya Radilova, Dominique Salerno, Adriana Spizuoco, Rooki Tiwari, and Josephine Wheelwright. The actress playing Eteocles, the king who meets his rebel brother in mutually assured destruction at the seventh gate, was especially forceful and magnetic.

The play's greatest elements are mythopoetic, as in the cataloging of the weirdly characterized fearsome seven Argive invaders and their equally brave and idiosyncratic defending Theban counterparts. The curse of Oedipus (the two earlier plays of this trilogy, which won first prize at the City Dionysia in 467 B.C.E., Laius and Oedipus, are lost) that his sons will divide their inheritance by the sword must be fulfilled.

The action here never stopped, but the kinetic and verbal pyrotechnics never overwhelm the surprisingly thoughtful text, which contains still-relevant discussions of the role of individual dignity and inner strength when confronting what seems an endless cycle of poverty, war, injustice and oppression.

Having an all-female cast puts a different, and radical, spin on Seven Against Thebes, at least if you consider radical getting to the root of things. When Eteocles upbraids the chorus of women for being afraid (huh, they're afraid that in the event of a successful invasion, they'll be raped and ruined), his misogyny is highlighted.

The king says he doesn't like to live with women, since they're bossy when things are good and hysterical when things go bad. Yet these "women" here are also the fierce warriors who fight without fear or favor. When the chorus argues they're rightfully afraid, Eteocles replies that it's the citizen's duty to shut up and not express their fears even in the face of outside terror. Interesting.

In his own repudiation of marriage to a woman (his rebel brother Polynices has married the daughter of the king of Argos, the city-state leading the attack), Eteocles makes us wonder about his own sexuality. There's also a fascinating line when he announces that stoning will be the punishment for disobedience to the state, whether the citizen is a woman, man or (we're paraphrasing here) "whatever is in between them." He seems to be saying that he recognizes that some people have indeterminate or fluid gender. Again, fascinating.

Anyway, this whole performance seemed to work perfectly in all its elements. You can catch the Faux Real Theatre Company's Seven Against Thebes and Oedipus Rex at various parks on coming weekends, and we think you'll be glad you did. At the end of the tremendous applause for the show, SummerStage's Freedome Bradley again came to the stage and thanked everyone for a great SummerStage season.

We reflected on all the SummerStage events we've attended this year, starting in early June -- from Betsy Head Park in Brownsville, Red Hook Park in Red Hook, Von King Park in Bed-Stuy, St. Mary's Park in the South Bronx, Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Highbridge Park in Washington Heights to their main stage at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park -- and we're extremely grateful to the City Parks Foundation and everyone, including the corporate sponsors and all the donors, for bringing New York City such wonderful free entertainment. Thanks so much!

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