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Julie Baldauff, Julyana Soelistyo, Brenda Wehle, Albert S. in The Children of HeraklesReal Children and Other Quandaries
By Scott T. Cummings

The Children of Herakles
By Euripides (translation by Ralph Gladstone)

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA Jan. 4-25, 2003.
Box Office: (617) 547-8300



Peter Sellars' mission is to restore to theater its Athenian birthright as the cradle of democracy, a public forum where artists and citizens can debate civic values with impunity. His latest project demonstrates one model for how this might be done and, in the process, it draws attention to the international refugee crisis. How far, Sellars asks along with Euripides, should we go to protect the basic human rights of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised? How should the United States of America, a nation founded by refugees, respond to the rising tide of displaced persons at this moment of heightened security concerns? To put it bluntly, what hath Ashcroft wrought?

Sellars' production of Euripides' The Children of Herakles premiered last September at the Ruhr-Triennale in the Ruhr Valley town of Bottrop, now a re-settlement center for Kurdish refugees in Germany. After stops in Paris and Rome, the production has come to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, marking the return of Sellars to the theater where he first directed as a Harvard undergraduate 22 years ago. The Children of Herakles is designed as a three-part event: first, a panel discussion on US immigration policy featuring Boston-area refugees, human rights activists, and government officials; second, following a coffee break, a bare-bones performance of Euripides' play about the effort of Herakles' orphaned children to find asylum in Athens; and third, after an optional buffet dinner in the lobby, a foreign film from or about a country with refugee issues. On opening night, only a fraction of the sold-out audience stayed for the film, which got under way around 11 pm, and the same has been true on subsequent nights.

That more do not stay is too bad because, as the last lap of the marathon performance, the film gives the evening arc and amplitude. To shuffle the celluloid images of The Valley, about war-ravaged villages in Kosovo, with the tragic poetry of Euripides, the personal testimony of a political refugee from Guinea, and the government-speak of an INS official, boggles the mind in a way that challenges basic assumptions about what constitutes an evening of theater. The critical temptation is to crack the nut of the evening, toss aside the shell of talking heads and late-night film, and concentrate on the sweet meat of the Euripides play. But the play is not the thing here, not the whole thing. And the whole is greater than any one spectator can take in. Over the play's three-week run, seven films will be shown and dozens of panelists will speak, generating a massive dialogue that mirrors the Hydra-headed complexity of the issue. Like the blind men trying to identify an elephant, each night's audience only has one point of contact with an enormous beast.

The panel discussion establishes a prism through which Euripides' play is refracted. On opening night, the defensiveness of Bo Cooper, General Counsel for the INS, and the difficulty of understanding Ibrahima Bah, a Fulani tribesman who survived torture and a 13-month detention in his native Guinea, made for a conversation that never quite caught fire. Still, the point was clear that every asylum seeker has a unique story to tell. The refugee diaspora at present numbers roughly 30 million, a virtual nation equal to the population of Canada; eighty per cent are women and children. That's a lot of stories.

First performed around 430 BCE, the featured story of the evening is surprisingly contemporary. In Euripides' play, the aging Iolaus (Jan Triska), former "right-hand man" of Herakles, seeks to persuade Demophon (Brenda Wehle), "President" of Athens, to provide sanctuary for the fallen hero's refugee children, thus risking war with Argos. Demophon agrees, but the gods demand a human sacrifice if Athens is to withstand the Argive attack. Macaria (Julyana Soelistyo), daughter of Herakles, steps forward to volunteer. The battle won and the children free, Eurystheus (Cornel Gabara), the Argive king and arch-enemy of Herakles and his children, is brought forward to face justice. Demophon will not execute Eurystheus as a prisoner of war, but in a conclusion rife with moral ambiguity and political legerdemain, he is handed over to Alcmene (also Julyana Soelistyo), Herakles' vengeful mother, who sends him off to be put to death. "That's the solution," says the chorus in the play's final line, "I want to make sure that our President is cleared of all responsibility in this."

Sellars' handling of The Children of Herakles extends the testimonial action of the panel discussion to the play itself. When Macaria offers to martyr herself, she steps up to a downstage microphone. "I hereby put myself on record," she says, her voice girlish yet strong, "that of my free will I volunteer to die for these and for myself." In a similar manner, each character in the play speaks as a matter of public record, through a microphone, standing somewhere along the downstage edge of the stage and addressing the audience, which sits in dim houselights for much of the performance. Every utterance is official, rhetorical, and deliberate, as if spoken at a trial, hearing, or tribunal. A chorus of two sits at a table on a side apron that juts out into the house; one of them, Christopher Lydon, is also the moderator of the panel discussion, providing a direct link between the two parts.

Sellar's staging is minimal, seemingly anti-theatrical, but there are moments of restrained spectacle. When Eurystheus faces justice in the end, he speaks from behind a bullet-proof shield, shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing the bright orange coveralls of a Guantanamo detainee. Earlier, the sacrifice of Macaria is enacted in abstract fashion, with blood poured from bowls down the front of a white smock. This lengthy rite leads to a remarkable onstage transformation: the double-cast Soelistyo emerges from the plastic sheeting in which the bloody body of the teen-age martyr has been wrapped and becomes the vengeful matriarch Alcmene, who soon will call for Eurystheus' blood. For Sellars and, given Greek tragedy's three-actor rule, probably for Euripides as well, the circle of violence, from sacrifice to execution, emanates from one body.

More subtle and powerful than this is Sellars' simple configuration of the stage space. Centerstage, on the other side of the downstage border along which the actors speak, there is a large, square, horizontal frame of fluorescent tubes hovering just off the floor and surrounding a small, raised platform. The only scenic element onstage, this suggests the altar where the children of Herakles take temporary refuge, and to represent them, Sellars has gathered two dozen teen-agers, Boston-area refugee and immigrant youth with names like Sajeda, Bzumina, Ketna, Sadip, and Teshome. Dressed in street clothes and sneakers, their faces a rainbow of darker hues, they sit huddled together inside the fluorescent frame for most of the performance, looking on with disinterest. They are guarded by a soldier in a camouflage uniform, a rifle over his shoulder. Above them, atop the raised platform, sits a regal woman in an ornate red costume with a plumed headdress. She is Ulzhan Baibussynova, an epic singer and musician from Kazakhstan. She sings and chants the choral odes in her native language, accompanying herself on the dombra, a two-stringed lute steeped in Kazakh tradition.

And so, beyond the audience and the line of speech at the edge of the stage are two human mysteries, one a stunning solitary figure from an unknown land halfway around the world and the other a group of adolescents from a few blocks away. One on the ground and the other perched priestess-like above the fray, both are bounded by a frame of glaring white light that seems to protect and confine them at the same time. In a production that emphasizes eloquence and the play's verbal action, the fact that neither speaks -- she sings in a foreign tongue; they remain silent -- is crucial for its suggestion that, beyond the barrage of words that is so central to the democratic process, there are voices we do not hear or cannot understand.

And despite the exotic mystery of Ulzhan Baibussynova, I find myself more fascinated by this silent gaggle of teenagers, who sit with chins in hands, trying not to fidget, staring out at us or just into space. Presumably by instruction, they make no effort to act, not even when, as the children of Herakles, they are in mortal danger or their "sister" Macaria hugs each one of them good-bye before submitting to the knife. All they offer is their presence, their willingness to be the collective sign of the play's title characters. They just sit there, making no pretense, not even of interest, and every time I look at them their lack of engagement shatters the sham of theatrical illusion, as minimal as it is here. Who are they? Are they having fun? Are they getting paid? What will they buy?

For me, this curious distraction is just one more way in which Sellars de-stabilizes, even de-commodifies, the theatrical event. The impulse for closure is disrupted. The play is not a waking dream that we snap out of at the curtain call. It is part of an ongoing civic process, focused here on the global refugee emergency. The Children of Herakles does more than put a human face on the global refugee emergency. Everything about it identifies the audience as citizens of a larger community (local, national, and global) and calls upon them to participate in the democratic process through which such issues are addressed. That Sellars does this with clarity and humanity, without guilt-tripping or sermonizing, is one sign of his achievement.


(Scott T. Cummings is a theater critic and scholar based in the Boston area, where he also teaches at Boston College.)


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