nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
July 7, 2010
The East River Park Amphitheatre is a gorgeous spot to catch a show in the summer. The back of the stage frames the action and opens up onto the East River and Queens. This is where I caught American Thymele Theatre's new production of Alcestis, a play by Euripides with—of all things—a happy ending. This is the Euripides of fairy tale romances like Iphigenia in Tauris, rather than the Euripides of bloody revenge tragedies like Medea. Alcestis is the anti-Medea—a dedicated wife and mother who agrees to swap her life for that of her husband. (This is because the god Apollo is punished by Zeus for killing the Cyclopes, and takes refuge as a slave in the home of the king Admetus, who treats him kindly, and well… don't ask. You don't really need to know to enjoy the play.)
ATT sets forth a modest proposal—to do traditional Greek drama in traditional Greek style. Costumes are in keeping with the period. They use masks and music. (The original score is by Kostas Kouris.) The text here is the Richmond Lattimore, a straightforward, college-intro adaptation, free of modernist high jinks. ATT performs mostly in outdoor amphitheatres, in daylight as the Greeks did, without an intermission and for free. The emphasis here is on tradition (such as we can discern) and straight-line storytelling.
One problem here is that for all its charm, the extant text of Alcestis is a little static. The main character is more like the figure of a long-suffering noblewoman than a flesh and blood character. (There's a reason actresses kill to play Medea.) She waits nobly for death, but doesn't really do much in the meantime. Conflict doesn't rev up until her funeral, when Admetus squares off against his father Pheres. Even in ancient times, families behaved badly at funerals. When Admetus attacks his father for refusing to give up his life for his son, Pheres gives back as good he gets, accusing his son of weakness and worse for allowing a woman to die in his place. Even in the midst of his fairy tale doings, Euripides shows his usual moral ambivalence, his willingness to tear down heroes and gods, his suspicion of easy solutions and motives. Admetus loves his wife, but allows her to die in his place. Alcestis loves her husband but is tormented by the thought of his remarrying after her death. (She's a bit of a martyr, really.) And Hercules, who seems at best a boorish, drunken houseguest, surprises everyone with a noble act at the climax, thus acquitting himself of bad behavior around the house.
ATT's production is an adequate introduction to the play, but not a memorable one. The problem lies in the acting, which rarely rises to needed levels. Denise Fiore as Alcestis is queenly, but is unable to make the character's maddening passivity interesting. Harry Oram as Hercules fares a bit better. While sometimes straining his voice and overdoing the character's swaggering machismo, he at least adds some gusto to his scenes. Zenon Zeleniuch comes off well as the wily, self-centered father and Paul Mischeshin is a good Apollo. But Christopher Ryan flounders in the important role of Admetus. He's a handsome actor with a decent voice, but he plays one note. Messengers and servants tend to run on, stand, pause, summon up some kind of emotion, wail a bit, and then start talking, which doesn't help matters.
The Chorus of Elders, though, fulfills their function nicely. Traditional Greek choral technique reads as strange and far away to us now—those fake beards! those staffs! But these six masked men chant, caper, top each other, circle back, sing a bit, nail a laugh or two, and generally keep things moving, as a good chorus ought.
Lorca Peress's direction gets the job done, but some sections looked hurriedly adapted to the expanse of the East River Park Amphitheatre. (Does the kid really need to run back and forth between his mother and father in the death scene when he's addressing one or the other?) Peress’s work is clean and unfussy for the most part, though the second half could be tightened up, and there seem to be missed opportunities for musical underscoring and other effects that would heighten the drama. She keeps the pace light in the first half—a necessity when bargaining with Death—and adds a few fantastical touches, like the Mexican standoff between a scimitar-swinging Death and Apollo in the prologue.