October 12, 2008

Stage is Battleground for Passions of War Greek Classic Takes Us Back 2,500 Years to Persia


Five women founded Renaissance Theaterworks with a mission in 1993. It was to be Milwaukee's women's stage company, and it has been that with exceptional results.

But an eyebrow must be raised when scanning the cast list of the troupe's new production. "The Persians" employs nine males and one female on stage.

"Yeah, I noticed that and mentioned it to the women,""Persians" director Angela Iannone said with a laugh. "They pointed out that the adaptation was written by a woman, the director is a woman, and there will be many women's roles through the rest of their season."

Another valid reason for a feminist theater company to mount "The Persians" is its subject matter, the aftermath of a devastating war. Women are uniquely vulnerable in war, and they suffer the loss of husbands, sons and fathers.

"The Persians," written by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus 2,481 years ago, is considered the oldest surviving play in Western culture. It focuses on the unimaginable defeat of an arrogantly expansionist world power, Persia, by the much smaller city-state, Athens.

An unnecessary war started by the Persian king became a devastating defeat that decimated his army and humbled his country. Aeschylus participated on the Athenian side, and eight years after the conflict he wrote "The Persians," which interestingly observes the war from the loser's point of view.

Over the course of almost 2,500 years, any play has its box office ups and downs, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a boon for "The Persians." As the Iraq war was beginning in 2003, actor Tony Randall hired actress-playwright Ellen McLaughlin to write a new adaptation of the classic for his National Actors Theatre. A significant amount of McLaughlin's writing career has centered on adapting Greek drama.

Randall wanted to get the show mounted as quickly as possible, and he set a seemingly impossible deadline of six days for the new script. His wishes were met.

Renaissance is using the adaptation written by McLaughlin, who has said she believes "The Persians" is among the world's great anti- war plays. Not everyone agrees with that analysis.

"The academia surrounding this play is enormous," Iannone said before a rehearsal. "There is a crust of scholastic study and opinion around it because it stands alone. It is so unique.

"The play is not mythical in its proportions. No gods appear. These are real people, and it is the only eyewitness account of that war."

Iannone continued, "The big academic question is whether it is an anti-war play or a victory lap. I don't think it is anti-war or a victory lap. I think it is an extraordinarily humanistic play.

"It is an astonishing message you don't find in any other Greek play. Aeschylus says you have to forgive, you have to heal."

Historical, topical

Renaissance producing director Julie Swenson explained her company's decision to include "The Persians" in its season. "We were struck by the incredible story, the accessible language and the very topical subject matter."

Swenson said Iannone, a busy actress who also teaches theater at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was the only person the group considered to direct the production. She staged "Trojan Women" for Renaissance in 2002, and the company has great confidence in her facility with the Greeks.

"The classic Greek plays require a level of technical skill we fortunately have in abundance in Milwaukee," Iannone said. "These plays contain elevated language. They command actors to speak long, complicated sentences.

"They have a meter that is not Shakespearean -- it is harder than Shakespeare. They require an emotional accessibility -- you have to get to it immediately.

"In most Greek plays you start at an emotional peak and then you go higher. There is no ramp-up of emotion. They require a toughness. You have to hit those peaks again and again, and not destroy yourself."

"The Persians" is expected to run only about 70 minutes, and it will be mounted in a reconfigured Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center that will have the cast performing in a long and narrow space in the center of the room. "No one will be farther than 8 feet from the actors," Iannone said of the audience.

The director is rather famous in the theater community for her pet peeve -- theater-goers reading their programs during the show. "There should be nothing interesting in a program," she declared, adding that she refuses to write the customary director's notes.

But Iannone has kept a journal of the directing process for "The Persians," which began a year ago, and she is self-publishing it for sale on the way out of the theater. The book, which will include photos, will take readers through her research, production meetings, casting, blocking and rehearsals. She expects it to be more than 150 pages and anticipates the price to be around $20.


"The Persians" runs through Nov. 2 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets are $32, at (414) 291-7800 or www.r- t-w.com.


Angela Iannone will talk about directing Greek drama and her book "Rehearsing with Aeschylus" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Schwartz Bookshop, 10976 N. Port Washington Road, Mequon.


Read an interview with playwright Ellen McLaughlin about adapting "The Persians" at tinyurl.com/3k6uff.


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