REAL CHILDREN AND OTHER QUANDARIES
By Scott T. Cummings
The Children of Herakles
By Euripides (translation by Ralph Gladstone)
American Repertory Theater, 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 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
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.)