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.
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
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
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.)