I'm babbling into my phone as I practically stagger down the street... "I'd say it was one of the best that I've ever seen... Except that they've each been one of the best I've ever seen..."
Lynn is laughing as she listens to my exuberance, "You always say that..."
I've just left the Shakespeare Theater Company's performance of The Persians, and, as is always the case when I walk out of the Lansburgh Theater I'm feeling quite overwhelmed by what I've just been a part of.
I've never been much of a theater goer. Because of Marian's love for Broadway musicals, I've seen quite a few of those in the last decade (both in New York and on the road). On the few occasions when I've seen a "straight" play, done professionally, I've enjoyed it tremendously, but it's just not something that I generally make time for, or even think much about when I'm travelling and looking for things to do. But a couple of years ago, as I was getting out of the shower, there was a story on NPR about a new production of Cyrano de Bergerac. I first saw a tv version of the play when I was in my early teens and it had a profound effect on me. I've seen every version I could (including Steve Martin's marvelous Roxanne), and read it several times. So I perked up at the radio story and was thrilled to find, at the end of it, that they were talking about a production that was about to open in DC and that it would be playing while I was there on my next trip. I immediately got online and ordered a ticket.
It was one of the deepest, richest artistic experiences I've ever had -- right up there with seeing Branford and Ellis at Blues Alley, or walking out of the Whistler retrospective a changed man... Since then, whenever I'm going to be in DC I look to see if there's something playing at the Shakespeare Theater, and if so, I get a ticket. Doesn't matter what the show is.
So this time it was The Persians. The very beginning of the western theater tradition. 2500 years old. And absolutely contemporary. Bob Mondello has an excellent review in the DC City Paper that really gets into the details of the production. I was too busy being dazzled by the theatrical effects to be as analytical about it as Mondello, so I'm grateful to him for explaining some of the stagecraft that was being used to pound me into emotional submission. When I read his description of that final heartbreaking moment between Xerxes and his mother I wept all over again.
The play is only 75 minutes long, without intermission. So there's none of the build & release of tension that one expects in a modern play. It's just build. As I practically stumbled out of the theater wiping the tears from my face, I wasn't even sure why I was crying. They sure weren't the sentimental movie tears that Lynn & Marian tease me about -- this was something much deeper, a complexity of emotions mixing sorrow and anger and fear and astonishment and empathy and horror. Maybe standing up on my theater seat and howling would have been a more accurate expression of the pounding in my brain & chest.
This production would be as powerful and moving even if we weren't seeing it played out in front of us in the news every day. The parallels between the arrogance of the Persians and the blind hubris of my president and his crew of blinkered fanatics couldn't be clearer. 2500 years. Our politicians learn nothing.
The scholars have a few theories on what Aeschylus was trying to do with this play -- risky business to do something like this in front of the Athenians only a few years after the real events took place. The one I find most compelling is that Aeschylus was beginning to see in the Athenians the same arrogance to power & grandeur that had led Xerxes to overreach. It was a warning. He won first prize in the competition. And the end of Athens played out just as he might have foretold.
I try to listen to the little imp on my shoulder who tugs at my ear and warns me of my own hubris. I've learned to be grateful to it -- saved my ass more than once. I might have to ask sometime if it knows whatever happened to W's imp. Did he never get one, or did it just give up a long time ago? When the hubris imps gather in the Cloud 9 bar on their days off, do they look down at W & Condi & Rumsfeld & Cheney and shake their little impish heads in wonder? And maybe there's even a bit of admiration at how willfully blind & foolish those humans can be, even with all of the horrifying examples of their history laid out before them.