Is it so hard to believe now, this twenty-five hundred year old story about gods and humans, their loves and their lies? Do we have no other response than to scoff at the thought that men might be gods, or might be animals? In Ion, Euripides reaches to us, heart to heart, across a hundred generations or more, with the intelligence that we are in control of our own destinies. Euripides’ Athenians, who had so much less experience at being human than we do, nonetheless fill us with an oddly comforting wisdom.
Perhaps if we suffered more we would understand more. We face uncertain times now, but the Athenians at the time of Euripides were in the midst of the disastrous Second Peloponesian War, and their culture and nation were at high risk. All about them was a waste of young men, spreading like a wine stain from a spilt glass upon a tablecloth. And, unlike us, they had no long view of history to sustain them. They were thus obliged to rely on the favor of their enigmatic gods.
Under these circumstances, it is an act of godhood to create children, and finding one’s family is a sacred event. Consider this story: a woman – let’s call her Creusa (Lisa Harrow) makes love to a god (this happens all the time) and in the fullness of time gives birth to a child (as an adult, Keith Eric Chappelle). The father-god abandons the child (also a frequent event, unfortunately), and the mother, laden down with responsibilities, surrenders, or misplaces, the child and he is gone, seemingly forever.
A generation passes. Creusa and her husband Xuthus (Sam Tsoutsouvas), both seemingly without living children (like much of bewildered and heartbroken Athens), have come to the Delphic oracle to ask Apollo whether they will ever have children again. Creusa does not recognize her son, now chief attendant to his father Apollo, as he sweeps up around her.
It is easy to understand, in this sprightly adaptation by David Lan so well staged by Ethan McSweeny, that the stakes are nothing less than the fate of the human soul. In creating, and nurturing, our children we are generative gods; in our destruction we are like animals. At one point Creusa, advised by her misguided counselor (Floyd King), contemplates the murder of the man she does not know is her son, thus recalling the behavior of alpha lions, who kill the cubs of all other males. And it is worth noting that until Xuthes names him Ion is called nothing at all, but identified only by his function. By naming Ion, Xuthes exerts lordly dominion, as Adam exercised dominion over the animals in Genesis by naming them. We do not know which side of man’s nature will win in the play until nearly the climax. Two thousand five hundred years later, it is still an open question.
It helps that McSweeny has an all-star cast. I particularly liked Chappelle, who simultaneously shows the title character’s innocence and longing for simplicity and the steely resolution which undergirds his character. Aubrey Deeker, who doubles as Hermes and a human messenger and who begins the play by rappelling from the top of the stage, has a particularly supple touch with the lengthy expositional passages he has been chosen by Apollo, and Euripides, to deliver. Euripides is the least formal of the ancient Greek playwrights, and Lan has whittled him down judiciously, but the tradition required long speeches, often with a single emotional note. Some actors make heavy weather with it, but Deeker’s speeches – delightfully illustrated, at one point, with Aaron Cromie puppets – are delivered with urgency and passion.
King is his usual magnificent self, but if I might be permitted a minor criticism I wish he would play his blind men blinder. This is the second blind man I have seen him play this season who is surprisingly dexterous in finding his chair. I realize that the actor must balance making his blindness seem authentic against making his blindness dominate the show, but I wish that King would use a little more tapping and stumbling to find his balance point. As it is, King’s sudden ability to locate his seat interrupts, briefly, the fictive dream.
The best part of the show is unquestionably the chorus: Rebecca Baxter, Lise Bruneau, Kate Debelack, Laiona Michelle and Patricia Santomasso. The traditional Greek chorus speaks the prescribed verses in unison but this chorus sings those verses, in gorgeous five-part harmony to Michael Roth’s beautiful music, accompanied principally by a fabulous cellist, Caleb Jones. It is McSweeny’s conceit that the chorus – handmaidens all to Creusa – come to Delphi as modern tourists, with iPods, suntan oil and cameras. They each establish their own (strikingly modern) personas, but when they first raise their voices to sing Euripides’ profoundly moving verses on children and childlessness, they immediately universalize their characters, and become the human race.
Greek plays end with a deus ex machina. The deus in this play is a winged Athene (Colleen Delany), and the machina is whatever device the Shakespeare Theatre uses to lower her from the ceiling, so that she stands, suspended motionless, halfway above the stage floor. Delany, who has specialized in fragile characters (she played a memorable Lavinia in the Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus two years ago), is here formidable, powerful, and, well, omniscient. She prophesies that Ion, after a period of nurturing by Creusa and Xuthus, will go on to create the nation of Greece (I give away nothing here; you are familiar with the Ionian people, and with the Ionic column), and that their other children with be great and creative leaders as well. In this, Euripides, speaking through Athene, anticipates the judgment of mankind later reached by the genius in whose name this company was created: “in action, how like an angel; in apprehension, how like a god!” (Hamlet, II.2).
Adapted by David Lan
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
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