Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tuesday Evening on the Lower East Side: American Thymele Theatre's NYC Euripides Summer Festival presents Euripides' "Children of Hercules" at the East River Park Amphitheater

This evening we saw an intriguing and well-acted performance of Euripides' rarely-staged Children of Hercules, presented at the East River Park Bandshell by American Thymele Theatre as part of its NYC Euripides Summer Festival.
Directed by the company's founder and producing artistic director Stephen Diacrussi, this production proved a thoughtfully entertaining and coherent interpretation of an episodic and somewhat puzzling play, clarifying it as not just a conventional exercise in Athenian patriotism but as a meditation on the relationship of gender, age and political authority.
The individual performances -- particularly that of Michael Raimondi as the aged, infirm Iolaus, relative of the dead Hercules and protector of his children, now hunted refugees -- serve the production well, and the rather disjointed plot strands (probably caused by scenes written by Euripides but missing from the text) somehow work together here so that Children of Hercules is both exciting and relevant.
In its 2,440-year history this is just the second staging of Children of Hercules ever in America and the first professional staging in the English language using an ancient, traditional approach. The shortest of all existing Euripides tragedies, Children of Hercules is a play in praise of the city of Athens, which serves as a place of refuge for Hercules' children, now targeted to be killed by their father's rival.
The play begins at the altar of Zeus at Marathon. The herald Copreus, in the employ of King Eurystheus of Mycenae, attempts to seize the children of Herakles, together with Herakles's old friend, Iolaus. When King Demophon, son of Theseus, insists that Iolaus and Herakles's children are under his protection, Copreus (a snarling and scary Stephen Powell) threatens to return with an army.
Demophon (played as a noble ruler by Todd MacIntyre) is prepared to protect the children even at the cost of fighting a war against Eurystheus, but after consulting the oracles, he learns that the Athenians will be victorious only if they sacrifice a maiden of noble birth to Persephone. Demophon tells Iolaus that as much as he would like to help, he will not sacrifice his own child or force any of the Athenians to do so. Iolaus, realizing that he and the children will have to leave Athens and seek refuge elsewhere, despairs.
A citizen of Marathon (David Bushman is the Coryphaeus) leads a chorus of six other citizens who comment on the action, offer support to Iolaus and Hercules’ children, and provide counsel to their king Demophon. Later, they will dance and sing in celebration of a military victory, praising a world where nobility and excellence triumph.
When Macaria (Tara Bancroft), a older daughter of Hercules, hears about the oracle's pronouncement and realizes her family's predicament, she offers herself as the victim, refusing a lottery. Bidding farewell to her siblings and to Iolaus, she leaves to be sacrificed.
At the same time, Hyllus, Hercules’ oldest son, arrives with reinforcements offstage, as reported by one of his men. Although Iolaus is old and feeble, he insists on going out to the battle. Once there, he miraculously regains his youth and captures Eurystheus. A debate about executing him follows. Alcmena, Hercules's aged mother, brought out by her attendant, catalogs all the wrongs he has done against her family, says she wishes she could herself kill Eurystheus twice, and insists that he be executed right away – although such an execution of a prisoner of war is against Athenian law.
Finally, Eurystheus tells them a prophecy of how his spirit will protect the city from the descendants of Hercules's children if they slay and bury him, and so it is done.
One of the things that struck us as odd is that usually Iolaus is described as Hercules' nephew and younger than Hercules, but here Iolaus is a lame old man, seemingly about the same age as elderly Alcmena, who is his grandmother. But anyway, there are repeated, similar references to each one's age and their loss of power and status -- miraculously regained by Iolaus in battle offstage, and in a more symbolic way, by Alcmena, when her wrath becomes the focus of the play's denouement.
The fiery Alcmena, played with regal gusto by Diana Swinburne, is a marked contrast to her demure, dignified self-sacrificing granddaughter Macaria. She also berates the chorus of citizens for not listening to her bloody plans to kill Eurystheus and expresses her belief that Zeus is indifferent, not the trusted god of the chorus, and that they must, as humans, take revenge and not leave such things to the gods.
Although the characters are not fully fleshed out as in the later, more mature plays of Euripides, they're not mere puppets or spokespersons for a position. Even the various messengers are distinguished: Hyllus' henchman (Alessandro Ciari, very good) is bluff to the point of ridiculing the decrepit Iolaus' determination to join the battle while the one bringing news of the triumphant battle (Michael Thayer) is flamboyant in his descriptions and seems to take pleasure in Eurystheus' desperation.
All in all, this Children of Hercules is a fast-moving, intelligently conceived production of a neglected play that has perhaps been unfairly disparaged by critics over the centuries. The mission of American Thymele Theatre, to promote and disseminate Hellenic culture in America, by producing plays with Greek themes -- we first encountered them in an excellent production of Euripides' Alcestis in Central Park two years ago -- is a worthy one, and they've done a great service with this year's NYC Euripides Summer Festival.
A special word about the kids playing Hercules' little children: silent, they are remarkable in their dignity, trepidation, and discipline, a constant reminder that this is ultimately a play about the plight of refugees. We have more refugees today than in the entire history of our planet, and nearly all the victims of abuse, like Hercules' children, are present among us everywhere but rarely heard in contemporary debates about refugees and immigration. Hercules' children and their elderly protectors are thrown out of everywhere on the Greek peninsula as ancient illegal aliens until Athens takes them in, an action Euripides and his Attic audience celebrated in this patriotic political drama.
This wonderful production will be back at the East River Park amphitheater on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., and at the same time on Thursday at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. The final free performance of Children of Hercules will be on Saturday, August 11, at 5 p.m. at Theatre 500 at Times Square. If you like Greek drama, you owe it to yourself to see a performance if you can; although the audience at East River Park was enthusiastic, we're sure more people would enjoy seeing this play. We're grateful we got to see Children of Hercules. Δείτε Ἡρακλεῖδαι από Εὐριπίδης!

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