“I knew the gods were cruel,” wails a soldier in The Greeks, which opened last month at the Odyssey Theater, “but this is evil, mad!”
His cry penetrates to the existential heart of Kenneth Cavander’s six-hour, two-part adaptation of 10 Greek classics. For it turns out that the Trojan War, with all its attendant hubris and carnage, its thousands of warriors disemboweled and hacked to pieces, was fought over a grotesque illusion.
It‘s the cuckolded Athenian King Menelaus who first uncovers this bitter irony, stumbling shipwrecked onto an Egyptian shore some two-thirds of the way through the epic. His wife, Helen, was thought to be living the high life in Troy after eloping with Paris — the offense that ignited the bloody conflict. Truth is, she was spirited away by Hermes even before she was said to have eloped; she never reached Troy, and instead has spent the last 17 years as the listless guest of a lecherous Egyptian king. And those aren’t the only details Menelaus and crew got wrong: He also thought that he had earlier been reunited with Helen. Now, he learns that that visage of his wife was a mirage, a little joke concocted by the gods.
The soldier‘s lament points to the essence of Greek tragedy: All the things men prize as reasons to fight — honor and principle, blood and passion — are, like the insubstantial “Helen,” so much vapor.
Cavander’s play appealed to director Ron Sossi not only because of its epic scope, but for its dualities. “My notion about life is that no matter how far we go in the direction of passion — generosity, cruelty, love and hatred — it‘s all just an illusion, and that both [the reality and the illusion] are true at the same time,” he says.
Sossi is drawn to Greek tragedy because “it’s about primal characters having primal sorts of experiences,” he explains. “The infliction of pain, and the enjoyment of it, is very Greek . . . Though in one sense they‘re barbarians, they’re at the same time philosophical.”
Cavander‘s adaptation, streamlined from a 10-hour Royal Shakespeare Company version, draws from the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (adding only an original prologue) in order to present a compacted, chronological recounting of the Greco-Trojan melee, as well as the tale of one of Western literature’s most dysfunctional families, the House of Atreus. Arranging the myths in sequence makes the story comprehensible to a contemporary audience and allows its themes — the preciousness of life, for example, and the difficulty of moral choices — to be relevant.
Adding to the saga‘s staying power is that the elemental stuff — “revenge, anger, the Agamemnon and Achilles testosterone battles, women being ripped apart by the loss of their country” — arouses passions people today continue to identify with, despite the millennial stretches between the pre-Hellenistic world circa 3000 B.C., when the Greek myths first evolved, and the fifth century B.C., when the plays were written, and our own age.
In the Greek dramas, Sossi hears Jungian echoes. “Whereas we say, ’The devil made me do it,‘ or ’I didn‘t do it, I was possessed,’ the Greeks accepted these primal forces that are in all of us. A dormant ax murderer is in you and me.”
Sossi‘s observation on the fusion of barbaric, rational and mystical elements in Greek tragedy plays out on the stage when Agamemnon, as commander of the Greek forces, must choose between sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to the gods or losing the war. Her sacrifice is demanded by the goddess Artemis, who, jealous over the Greeks’ preference for her sister Aphrodite, demands Iphigenia‘s life in exchange for stirring the winds that will push the Greek fleet to Troy. (You can’t conquer a place without first getting there.) Agamemnon acquiesces, feeling a greater responsibility to the army and the state than to his own family.
The macho warrior kills his daughter for the gods, though not, Sossi stresses, without anguish: “If he were Attila the Hun, he‘d probably just do it [without question].” Agamemnon, however, elucidates his carefully thought-out reasons for committing the monstrous deed, even persuading Iphigenia, who goes willingly to the altar, a daddy’s girl to the end.
Unfortunately for Agamemnon, his reasoning simply isn‘t credible to his wife, Clytemnestra. Enraged and grieving, she murders him in revenge and is, in turn, murdered by their other children, Orestes and Electra. Fleeing afterwards (we’re now in the 10th and final playlet), Orestes encounters big sister Iphigenia — not dead after all — on a remote island. The gods‘ trustworthiness is now suspect. For Sossi, it’s “the birth of Western psychology in some strange way — the recognition that maybe the gods aren‘t out there, that maybe they’re only projections of tendencies in all of us.”
Sossi spent significant chunks of rehearsal time working with the chorus (of seven women), arguably the drama‘s most vital element because their notably female perspective — delivered in soliloquies and chorales — provides the segues that cement the story’s fragments. Commentators throughout, they also participate in the drama, perhaps most memorably in The Trojan Women. In one visceral scene, they assume the roles of caged and branded captives, a condition that renders their punditry in other parts of the play particularly poignant and ironic.
The scene crystallizes a theme that‘s delineated throughout — the political powerlessness of that era’s women, regardless of their wealth, royalty or strength. Just as men‘s fate rests in the hands of the gods, women’s fate rests in the hands of the men. With all her might and beauty, Helen of Troy is still chattel.
Sossi used the experimental techniques of the late, emulated Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski to help the performers maneuver through the material‘s innate intensity, and to explore the predilection for the kind of “nonrealistic, more magical kind of theatricality” that drew Sossi to this project in the first place.
“I like the idea of theater in its ideal form being the audience, the actors and the director taking this exploratory journey together. It’s a matter of mutual investigation. Sometimes what we put up there may not make fully conscious sense to us, but it will make sense to the audience. It‘s really interesting. It’s kind of like dreaming onstage. You give flesh to your dream.”
The Greeks performs at Odyssey Theater Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Parts I and II — respectively, The Cursed and The Blessed — perform in repertory. Call (310) 477-2055 for schedule. Through December 5. For a review, see the Theater listings in Calendar, under “Hollywood, Westside and Downtown.”