MacArthur Fellow John Jesurun’s interpretation of a classic Greek myth offers a succinct and visually compelling meditation on a long, unwinnable war and the alienation of a disillusioned soldier. The minimalist set and evocative imagery provide a beautiful and dream-like background to the aggressive verbal attacks the characters launch at each other.
Will Badgett, Jason Lew and Louis Cancelmi
Photo by Paula Court
Philoktetes was a Greek general who, while en route to battle the Trojans, was abandoned by his fellow soldiers on an isolated island after being incapacitated by snakebite. However, after ten years of unsuccessful struggle against the Trojans, Odysseus consults an oracle who tells him the only way to win the war is to find Philoktetes and take Hercules’ bow from him. Jesurun’s play begins where the myth ends: Odysseus and Achilles’ son Neoptolemus visit Philoktetes and attempt to enlist his help.
The production has a fluid lyricism, both in its dialogue, which possesses the solemn sonority of scripture (and which, at times, is actually selections from the Bible) and visually as well. Two big screens, one angled down on the wall and the other on the floor, project images of nature—water, the full moon—and more abstract images—colors, sparks and trails of light—which establish both a lulling and uneasy atmosphere. At times, the actors used a camera at the back of the stage to appear in close up and larger-than-life on the wall screen.
Though there is more narrative than action, Philoktetes unfolds with tension of a courtroom drama: The characters coldly interrogate each other while harboring simmering contempt. Jesurun's minimal set and subtle staging heightens the effect of every sharp word or movement. Louis Cancelmi as Philoktetes is especially mesmerizing; his taut and restrained delivery speaks volumes as to the disillusionment that comes with prolonged isolation and the anger stemming from a soldier separated from his war. Will Badgett as a stern and be-suited Odysseus and Jason Lew as Neoptolemus are similarly entrancing.
It is the language of the play that is both the most beautiful and terrible part of the production. The play begins with Philoktetes’ entreaty, “Listen to me,” and it is difficult to disobey. References to gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures are uttered nearly in the same breath as references to modern conveniences (Chinese take-out, room service, etc) and slang. Ranging from repetitive call-and-response exchanges to visceral invectives (“Have another blood and honey sandwich, Odysseus, and contemplate your future under the boot.”), Jesurun’s imagery invokes the grim specter of war and an emphasis on the slow corporeal and metaphysical rot that ensues. This sparse and evocative play is not one to miss.
Philoktetes by John Jesurun
Directed by John Jesurun
Soho Rep (46 Walker Street)
October 13-28, 7:30 pm
Tickets: $25, www.smarttix.com
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