Day: October 21st, 2007

Philoktetes at Soho Rep

Sunday, October 21st, 2007 | All Things, Arts, Friends

Soho Repertory Theatre is a small theatre company, known for its development and production of non-traditional works. The company mounts at least two mainstage productions and two to four workshop productions a year in its 70-seat theater on Walker Street. This season, to promote their new pieces, the company launched “99 cent Sundays” for all mainstage productions, which is to say that one day a week, every seat in the theater, normally priced at $25, would be sold for less than a dollar. It was a deal too good to pass up. Soon enough, we had a full group on board for a trip to the theatre.

The production this month was avant-garde writer/director (and 1996 MacArthur Award winner) John Jesurun’s contemporary adaptation of Sophocles’ Trojan War play “Philoktetes.” In addition to his writing and directing duties, Jesurun designed the set for the work, which was distinguished by his minimalist staging and integrated use of cameras and video projection. I didn’t attempt any photos during the actual performance, but you can check out some images here.

The play, for those a bit rusty on their Greek mythology, surrounds the fate of Philoktetes, a heroic archer who was left stranded by his fellow soldiers on the island of Lemnos, after a serious snake bite on his foot eventually festered, rendering him insufferable and foul-smelling. (I don’t know why, but every rendering I’ve heard or read of this story seems to emphasize the malodor, so I’m including it here as well.) A decade later, when an oracle reveals that the Greeks will not be able to conquer Troy without the weapons of Hercules (inconveniently still in Philoktetes’ possession), Odysseus and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, return to Lemnos to retrieve the man they abandoned years earlier. (Awkward!)

I recalled an article that appeared in The New York Times in March about how Sophocles’ play was being used as a teaching tool for medical students at Cornell. Faculty found the depictions of illness and the reactions of friends and family to the sick person psychologically accurate today, and particularly relevant for doctors in training.

Jesurun’s rewrite was originally commissioned in 1993 by actor Ron Vawter, founding member of The Wooster Group. The action takes place on a bare stage lit with projected images on the floor and back wall. Over the course of 75 minutes, the three protagonists/antagonists meet and verbally spar. The plot takes something of a backseat to Jesurun’s vivid language, most of which fell into poetry slam-esque rhythm. I had a bit of difficulty following the trajectory with all the subtext of war, morality and homosexuality. Plus there was a distracting funk wafting through the air, which we decided later (much to our dismay) was not part of the intended effect. The Variety review suggests that “[i]t’s worth letting the experience of “Philoktetes” sink in for a while before trying to dissect it.” True that: it wasn’t until I read the reviewsgenerally solid — that I was able to better grasp what we saw that night.


Maybe experimental theatre isn’t really my thing.

For more straightforward drama, check out the Astoria Performing Art Center’s terrific production of “Proof,” David Auburn’s Pulitzer-prize winning play about mathematics. The proof in question just frames the action, though — one need not be able to discern i from π to appreciate the play. (Auburn himself did not advance beyond college-level calculus.) More universally, “Proof” is about the intertwining of genius and madness, the burdens and betrayals of family and lovers. See it especially if, like I, you missed the Broadway production which played to near-unanimous critical acclaim in 2001, earning three Tonys. Tickets are $15 each in advance via the website, or $18 at the door — Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through November 18, 2007. Blog entry about our November 4 visit to APAC coming soon.

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