*Herakles played a short run at BAM's Fisher Theatre; the production closed before this review was published.
BOTTOM LINE: Mixing an Ancient Greek tragedy with video of modern war veterans creates a story that's easily accessible for all.
A few flickering candles were all that remained as the lights faded in the Fisher Theater at BAM. As pulsing, contemporary music filled the space, a dream-like scene was revealed: slowly-moving, masked actors, depicting a montage of war. Amphitryon, Herakles’ foster-father, portrayed by Arthur Bartow (a strong and coaxing storyteller) set the scene in an opening monologue. Shortly after, the masks were removed. Although brief, the use of masks — a nod to performances in Ancient Greece — created a strange disembodiment and distance between the actors and audience that remained throughout the performance.
The production’s choice, however, to replace the classic Greek chorus with videos of veterans from wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, pulled us closer to the realities of war and its impact on soldiers and their families. The videos, projected on the upstage wall and interjected throughout the play, along with the stark direction and production design by Desiree Sanchez, made the tragic story of Herakles real and relevant.
As the story goes, the great hero Herakles (Brent Werzner), son of the god Zeus, has gone missing while completing the last of his twelve labors, which require him to travel to Hades, the underworld of the dead. His wife, Megara (played with intense emotional commitment by Elizabeth Wakehouse), his two children, and his mortal foster-father, Amphitryon, are all waiting — hopelessly it seems — for Herakles’ return to his home of Thebes. In his absence, Lykos (Nathan Flower), has taken control of the city and, believing Herakles dead, condemns his family to death.
Fortunately, Herakles comes back from the depths of Hades just in time to save his family, only to be driven to madness by the jealous goddess, Hera. Overcome with confusion and rage he kills his wife and children. Werzner played the title role with the vulnerability and strength of someone about to snap.
At the time Euripides wrote Herakles, the play was extremely relevant due to the Peloponnesian War. As a result, it still makes an apt story at a time when many veterans of recent wars have recently returned, or are waiting to come home. The translation and adaptation by Peter Meineck modernizes the ancient story, making it easy for audiences to grasp. The emotional, physical, and spiritual consequences of war, of coming home, and of the inability to prevent bringing the war back are vividly seen and heard. As the video-veteran-chorus speak of their experiences in battle, they connect the ancient tragedy with the real tragedies surrounding these soldiers’ time in combat, as well as the lives they continue to lead. These veterans’ stories can be difficult for a production to present: It runs the risk of ultimately undercutting the characters' experiences, thus stripping away our empathy for them. The "real" men and women we saw on that upstage wall were the heroes and warriors of this production. One particular moment in which the line between “real” and story blurred was when actor and Vietnam veteran, Brian Delate — seen previously in the videos — crossed onto the stage, making a poignant cameo as Herakles’ friend, Theseus.
This play is recommended for those who enjoy movies like The Hurt Locker, but do not necessarily have a tremendous amount of experience with the classics. In this production, Aquila Theatre is successful in their mission of making classical works accessible to the masses and asking the question of what it means to be human. As Amphitryon tells Megara, "the brave believe in hope." Amidst the pain, madness, and memories, there is hope: in the voices of brave soldiers who have battled and how we can learn from them.
(Herakles played at BAM's Fisher Theater, 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, through March 30, 2013. For more information visit aquilatheatre.com.)