The Drums of War

17. September, 2010 Theater No comments



Show #93: The Salt Plays, Part One: In the Wound, Shotgun Players, September 11.

Dave Maier in In the Wound. Photo by Benjamin Privitt

By Sam Hurwitt

Prolific local writer-director Jon Tracy has taken on a tremendous undertaking for himself with Shotgun Players’ first ever two-parter. What makes it so impressive is that the subject matter—turning two of the most seminal works in all of world literature into stage plays. The Salt Plays are loosely based on Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. The first part at John Hinkel Park this summer, In the Wound, tells the story of the Trojan War, and the second part at Ashby Stage in December, Of the Earth, details the long voyage home of crafty Greek war hero Odysseus.

The challenge Tracy set for himself may be ambitious, but what one takes home from In the Wound is how triumphantly he has answered it. It’s a dazzlingly dynamic, highly stylized staging of a lyrical, tragic, funny, challenging, fragmented, and fresh take on the well-worn ground of the battlefields of Ilium.

Tracy’s Animal Farm update for Shotgun’s summer show last year, The Farm, had similarly electric energy, and he dabbled in deconstructing the Greeks shortly thereafter with a more abstruse riff on Antigone called See How We Are for Impact Theatre. But In the Wound is the best work of his I’ve seen to date, and it puts American Conservatory Theater’s dreary Iliad adaptation War Music last year to shame.

It’s also full of drumming. Three goddesses preside over the action from three watchtowers around the sides of the stage area, pounding on large drums. Other drummers join in, hidden from sight, and the battles are waged with drums for shields and drumsticks for swords. This near-constant thumping music by Brendan West gives a marvelous sense of the adrenaline rush of combat.

What’s particularly interesting about Tracy’s adaptation is that it’s a Trojan War story that’s not particularly an adaptation of The Iliad. Tracy’s concerns are not the same as Homer’s, and he doesn’t really get into the reasons for Achilles’ withdrawal from battle that are so central to the Homeric epic.

Although it’s clearly meant to feed into the Odyssey story in the second play, Of the Earth, and Odysseus is the “salt” of the title, the heart of In the Wound is Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter whom the Greek forces sacrificed to the gods to ensure their ships’ safe passage to Troy. Homer doesn’t give this a second thought, but Iphigenia was told that she was going to be married to Achilles when she was led to the slaughter, and the goddesses are there to see that Achilles, Agamemnon and mastermind Odysseus atone for their crime. (Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, who did the actual killing and whose wife running away started the war in the first place, “doesn’t count.”)

Euripides covered some of this territory in Iphigenia at Aulis, which African-American Shakespeare Company and Brava Theater Center are currently coproducing in the contemporary adaptation Iph… But for Euripides Achilles is an unwitting patsy and in Homer he may as well have never heard of Iphigenia and quarrels with Agamemnon over a slave girl, whereas Tracy’s Iphigenia is Achilles’ one true love, and he continues to be haunted by her.  They all do, and the goddesses help that along by turning into leaping deer and dragging the gents into flashbacks.

The goddesses are dressed as nurses and bring the soldiers in for counseling as a way to get into their heads. Although she’s the one leading the goddesses more often than not, Elena Wright has a distant quality as Athena, as if lost in troubling thoughts. Charisse Loriaux is a fretful Aphrodite, with no time for anything remotely amorous while she worries herself over the fate of Troy. But Emily Rosenthal is a real piece of work as the fiery, capricious Hera, who goes from complaining about the games they play she is to relieving her boredom by spinning the war completely out of control.

Nina Ball’s set is dominated by the three wooden towers, covered with netting that looks as if it were woven from seaweed. The asphalt of the stage area is chalked into squares like a huge game of Four Square, or rather 75 Square, and floating wall segments pass through the field between scenes as characters disappear behind them.

The program suggests that the play set in 1944, although it doesn’t necessarily seem bound to one era. Michael Torres’s humorously inarticulate Agamemnon in particular is reminiscent of a swaggering, loudmouth Sarge in an old war movie. Christine Crook’s uniforms also are in the mode of WWII army fatigues, but with added leather guards and colorful crests attached to the helmets.

Daniel Bruno is a coolly poised and unflappable Odysseus, here portrayed not as a soldier but a suit-clad strategist or “social mathematician.” Typically you get a greater sense of why he’s called “cruel Odysseus” in Greek tragedies (and of course Roman ones, which are rooting for the Trojans anyway) than in the Homeric epics, but Tracy makes it one of the focal points of the play while also conveying that he’s cold and calculating primarily to get the war over as quickly as possible so that he can go home to his family. On that level, of course, Odysseus can only be judged a failure, because 10 years at war and another decade getting home isn’t exactly efficient.

We’re offered a tantalizing taste of what he has to go home to in numerous flashbacks. Lexie Pepedo is a graceful and patient Penelope, singing sadly to her absent husband, and Yannai Kashtan is endearingly precocious as son Telemachus, always sending messages to Odysseus on paper airplanes. For all that she’s dead from the outset, Nesbyth Rieman is a lively and playful Iphigenia in her romantic flashbacks with Aleph Ayin’s earnest Achilles.

Ayin plays a much more boyish and callow Achilles than I’ve ever seen before. Rather than the seasoned combatant one usually thinks of when they think of the unstoppable killing machine of the Trojan War, here he’s a super-soldier in the comic book sense—just some kid who was experimented upon to make him really, really good at killing.  His young bosom buddy Patroclus isn’t just a sidekick with benefits anymore but his peer. Roy Landaverde’s jealousy-crazed Patroclus even looks sort of like Ayin’s Achilles, making the scene where he goes to battle in his pal’s armor particularly credible.“They’re all little boys,” Athena says of the soldiers early on, and her assessment rings true.

The show sports a huge cast, reportedly Shotgun’s largest ever. Dave Garrett makes an amusingly snide and hapless Menelaus, and Jennifer Jovez is a radiant if seldom seen Helen. John Thomas does double duty as a quietly imposing Palamedes, come to drag Odysseus to war, and a patient and philosophical King Priam of Troy. Alex Hersler portrays a maddeningly arrogant, taunting Hektor, and Harold Pierce’s Paris, who got everyone into this mess by absconding with Helen, is defined mostly by his palpable desire to be anywhere else than where he is right now. In addition to choreographing some truly awesome battle sequences, Dave Maier gives a terribly moving performance as the fierce warrior Ajax, who carves the initials of all the dead soldiers onto his body and laments that he’s run out of room.

The 10 years of the war and nearly two and a half hours of the play seem to fly by, although there are parts of it that fly past a little too quick for comprehension. Some seemingly significant lines come off as non sequiturs, at least the first viewing, and certain aspects of the story could stand to be developed further. For all that the idea of freeing Iphigenia from limbo comes up again and again in the play, there doesn’t seem to be much resolution to that thread.

A lot of emphasis is put on the briefcases that Odysseus and Palamedes carry around, and we kinda-sorta find out eventually what’s in them, but not enough to support the symbolic weight Tracy places on them. (There’s a fine tradition of mysteriously portentous briefcases from Kiss Me Deadly to Pulp Fiction, but if anything that pop-culture baggage undermines their metaphorical power and reduces them to an in-joke.)

Tracy does a lot of this, using an image repeatedly before he gives any sense of what it represents. Odysseus holds up a little black book every time he talks about home, and we’re left to wonder if it’s supposed to be a passport or something until he reveals that it’s his diary of thoughts and sketches he jots down on the road. Why do the goddesses turn into deer when they launch a flashback?  It’s just what they do.

Some of the liberties Tracy takes with the story of the Trojan War, particularly its resolution, are as great as those in the mind-numbing action flick Troy. But it’s a remarkably entertaining and thought-provoking piece of theater that at its best truly does feel epic.

The Salt Plays, Part One: In the Wound plays through October 3 at John Hinkel Park, 41 Somerset Place, Berkeley.

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