A Grieving Chorus

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The New York Sun

The opportunity to see a production of the oldest surviving theatrical play — Aeschylus’s tragedy “The Persians”— was enough to excite curiosity. The chance to see it performed by the National Theatre of Greece, starring and directed by its renowned leading lady, Lydia Koniordou, generated outright anticipation. But though Ms. Koniordou’s “The Persians,” which opened its six-performance run at City Center on Saturday night, is a fascinating exercise, its elements never alloy.

The play, written in 480 B.C.E., focuses on an actual event from eight years earlier: the defeat of the Persians’ massive invading army by a small band of Greeks, who cunningly surrounded and rammed the Persians’ ships. Aeschylus himself fought in that bloody battle, and his brother died in it.

Yet Aeschylus made the extraordinary choice to write his play not about the victorious Greeks but about the vanquished Persians. He chronicles the Persians’ tragedy — how their arrogant king, Xerxes, led his subjects into an unfounded, unjust war, and how the gods made him pay for it with the lives of an entire generation of men.


The leader of a wealthy empire (who is also the son of the former king) leading an ill-considered invasion against a supposedly much weaker enemy? An invasion that goes awry when the small but resilient local army proves far more dangerous than anticipated? Sound familiar?

“The analogies with the current international situation are more than evident,” Ms. Koniordou writes in the program notes. “We considered it necessary to keep the connection with the historical version of the play.”

The “historical version,” however, has always had its difficulties. Until recent events brought “The Persians” back into vogue, the play was widely acknowledged to be a bit of a thudder onstage. A play with practically no action, it consists of a Greek chorus and the Persian queen waiting around the palace for news of the battle. By the time the play is a third over, we already know the army is lost; all that’s left is to flesh out the bad news.


In addition to tackling a problematic play, Ms. Koniordou has to reach an audience distracted by reading supertitles. (“The Persians” is performed in modern Greek.) Her production is reminiscent of that other supertitle art form, the opera, in its use of music to underscore its mood. You may not be able to watch the actors each time they speak, but you can get the flavor from the eerie, minimalist score (by Takis Farazis). And there are elaborate movement sequences for the two dozen chorus members who chant, sigh, and weep as they assemble in formations redolent of grief.

Ms. Koniordou’s choice of set — a massive tower of metal risers that runs the width of the stage — locks her into placing every major development in relationship to the risers.When Queen Atossa (Ms. Koniordou) first appears atop the risers, wearing a golden cape three times as tall as she is, her long train spills down the steps. As she sheds the robe and slowly descends the stairs, the chorus is rapt below her. She speaks of a foreboding dream and fears the worst for the army, then, at the base of the risers, she finishes with the dream, and climbs up and away.

And so it goes: When the first messengers arrive with news of a crushing defeat, they deliver their report at stage level, while the Queen mourns and convulses on the top row. At one point, the grieving chorus floods the risers, building the frenzy until the late King Darius (the commanding Yannis Kranas), roused from the dead by their wailing, suddenly pops out above the top stair, a ghostly apparition on an elevator-like platform. (He warns them to stay out of Greece.) The same flooding-the-risers motif appears near the end, this time halted by a loud voice holding a single sustained note. This is Xerxes (Christos Loulis) finally back from the battle with even more bad news.


The set design, with its multiple levels and the golden light sparkling on the chain mail-clad elders, enhances the effect of the chorus. A well-oiled unit of powerful voices and bodies that blend in and out of the huddle, the chorus gives an ancient sense of depth and portent to the proceedings. Their faces, part beard, part mask, have a sober cast, but their energy is bracing, and their voices have a potent music.

Ms. Koniordou, an estimable actress, more than holds her own against a chorus of two dozen. But ironically, her choice of set detracts from her own performance. Usually stationed far away from us, looming over the proceedings from the top riser, her presence takes on some of the remoteness of a fairy or a witch instead of personifying the earthy, anguished wife and mother her husky voice suggests. She seems unsteady on the rickety risers, and there are moments when its unclear whether she’s clinging to a bench for drama or for safety.

As director, Ms. Koniordou fares better: Her faithful rendition of “The Persians” sounds Aeschylus’s clarion call to his fellow citizens: Be wary of arrogant leaders and manufactured wars. (Why? Because the gods will punish you with ruin.)

Yet for all the wailing and tearing of cloaks, the play remains at a remove. Like one of those earnest documentaries with a bunch of talking heads, “The Persians” wants to move us with descriptions, facts, lists of names of the dead — here delivered not from a human face, but from text on a screen. Ultimately, Ms. Korniordou’s capable version of “The Persians” earns admiration, but it fails to connect emotionally.

Until September 20 (West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 212-581-1212).

The New York Sun

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