Where have we heard this before? A young king sends his legions across a great distance into battle against a smaller, native force in a bid for empire. The smaller force proves intractable and wrests a surprising win from the fray. Back home, a chorus bemoans the way the young king has poured away the youth of his nation “like so much water into desert sand” in a vain attempt to avenge his father’s failure to overcome the opposing force.
In the program for Aurora’s production of The Persians, actress and playwright Ellen McLaughlin swears that in her new adaptation of the Greek Aeschylus’ play, the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes are not Bushes senior and junior. Yet the work — which she wrote in just six days for Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre — is clearly intended to make audiences face the magnitude of what is happening in Iraq. “We have forgotten the color of blood,” she says, and this play — mostly composed of a chorus telling the story of Xerxes’ military expedition to Athens — brings home that color (and the sight of bodies “eaten by the voiceless fish of alien seas”) in a potent way.
What’s interesting is that Aeschylus actually fought the Persians, both at Marathon and Salamis (the battle of the play), yet was able to write such a humane treatment of the Persian response to their defeat. He didn’t get all the Persian cosmology right, but that’s a minor quibble next to the veracity of his storytelling. McLaughlin says she adapted with a light hand, trying to let the original story speak clearly, yet the show doesn’t feel like some hoary old Greek thing.
As the action begins, the four men of the chorus — representing the military, business, state, and the courts — explain that they “protect the hollow shell of an abandoned city” as they await news of the expedition. Apparently that’s accurate; according to historian J.M. Cook, even the frail, elderly uncle tasked with staying behind and protecting the palace accompanied Xerxes as far as the Hellespont.
The structure of the play builds in intensity — first we meet the chorus, then Xerxes’ regal but troubled mother Atossa, then a bloodied, battered soldier who has dragged himself home to spread the bad news, and finally Xerxes himself. It’s a slow, relentless build; other than a streak of brilliant sky in Kate Edmunds’ set and a surprising laugh the elegant Lura Dola gets early on as Queen Atossa, there is nothing light about this play.
One of the most moving parts has to be when Lawrence Thoo (“Justice”) describes a woman missing her man; she goes to the closet “to smell his lost body in the clothes he once wore.” Language is the thing here, rippling, repeating, gaining in intensity, and the voices of the chorus are largely up to the task, from Christopher Herold’s crisp precision to Owen Murphy’s rich, plummy British tones.
Disappointingly, the structure of the play doesn’t allow us much time with either Charles Shaw Robinson as Darius’ ghost or the dirty, stiff-legged Craig Marker as his son, the “monstrous brazen boy that could cast aside so many lives for nothing.” Marker, who was so gentle and lost as Adam in the Aurora production of The Shape of Things, seems much larger and tougher here, his Xerxes as horrified by what has been wrought as the queen and chorus.
“It is not hard to say, it is only impossible to comprehend,” he says of the battle of Salamis; for some reason, by this time the chorus has conveniently forgotten that they pushed their king to go against the Athenians (“surely we were doing the right thing because it was the thing we could do,” says one, in an eerie echo of the war in Iraq) and they’re out to tan his hide. Sadly, recriminations and blame are also familiar to our time, and we get those as well in this scathing production.