Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wild Child, Euripides' Ion and my array of Greeks

Wild Child, currently playing at New World Stages on West 50th Street, is the sort of theater that might have been designed with me in mind. Two actors with split-second variation of mood, manner, accent, affect, character, movement, stance, play the innumerable characters of an Off-Off-Broadway updated staging of Euripides' Ion (perhaps the most obscure of the master's extant tragedies, perhaps justly), plus the entire audience and assorted flashbackeroos, while the star and his wacky family turn out to have a family history not unlike the operatic one depicted in the play.

There are references to a children's book of Greek myths that inspired the boy to put on puppet plays of those theatrical sources and led inexorably to his present non-career - "I put on Greek tragedies with sock puppets - I even cut a hole in Medea's mouth so, after killing her children, she could eat them. But then Orestes got lost in the wash...." - similar early exposure to the myths led me to religious revelation as a born-again Pagan! - while other incidentals refer to a performance of Richard Schechner's outrageous (often nude) version of Euripides' Bacchae, Dionysus in '69, which as it happens was a revelation to me in my late adolescent pre-hippie days.

So I was very glad to be there, and enjoying myself, and following the plot, and feeling gratitude to Michael Feingold for directing me thither!

But the collected comments on the NYTimes review of the same item - five raves, two "whatwazzat? boring" imply that this is theater for only a certain sort of audience. If you need to have your comedy served to you in bite-sized clearly underlined bits, Wild Child is not for you - you have to be able to participate, to pay attention, to follow complicated plots between hilarious (sometimes off-color) humor, to catch and retain the clues that tie it all hilariously together. I guess it helped me to know Euripides, though I'd never seen any Ion before and I bet half the audience thought the actors had made the play up.

I am in some doubt as to whether or not to count this on my list of Greek plays as an actual attendance at a performance of Ion.

All this was a bit heady after a very odd phone conversation with my brother, who seems to wish to behave in a civilized fashion, and I am trying to respond a tempo, but if any chat with him extends longer than ten minutes he is hacking away, sticking shivs in my ribs, raking up old nastiness, as if he has nothing neutral to say on any occasion. Fifteen minutes of him per year is my limit. Still, a great relief considering what I have been anticipating. Mum is still going strong, or rather weak, which is why I suggested he come now and not wait till Christmas by which time she might be gone. Without my aunts and cousins and many friends offering long-distance hugs I'd be in a pretty dizzy place. But the family resonances with those in the play, I mean, well....

I had rather hoped Ion might complete my list of Greek tragedies, that I had now seen every extant one, in some form or other, but on checking my list, I find that I have never attended any version of Euripides's Suppliant Women, Heracleidae or Cyclops, his (or anyone's) one surviving satyr play (and no one knows who wrote Rhesus, sole survivor of Greek tragedy of the later, decadent generations), so I still have not completed my list.

Some may think me still further off, as I admit I've only seen Alkestis, Iphigenia in Tauris, Helen in Egypt, and Andromache in operatic redaction (recantations?)(and the last was Rossini's Ermione, based on Racine, not Euripides), and Antigone only in Anouilh's version and Hippolytos only via Racine's Phaedra - ditto Sophokles' Women of Trachis, where I've only seen Handel's oratorio, Hercules (though staged) - and only the hip-hop Seven Against Thebes (surprisingly good fun) and the gospel version of Oedipus at Colonus (even more so) and the country-rock version of Madness of Herakles, Hercules in High Suburbia (delicious).

As for Aristophanes - I haven't done well there at all, especially as few of them were made into operas (Al Carmines' Peace was a standout, and Schubert did a version of Lysistrata set during the Crusades), but one opera I am particularly eager to see is the recently recovered Die Vogel, Braunfels' lovely, late romantic but sane version of Aristophanes' The Birds, which was given in Los Angeles last April.

An absolutely fascinating piece in New York Review of Books in October by Daniel Mendelssohn (whose critical writing I love), in the context of Joanne Akalaitis' production in Central Park last summer (which I missed) explains Bacchae's weird construction better than I've ever seen it explained by anybody: as Euripides' riposte to Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, an assault on Euripides' view of women. I don't think I've ever read this play, certainly haven't seen it. Is this a new conclusion of Mendelssohn's, or has it been generally mooted for ages? He certainly makes his case and (as usual) makes me sorry I missed the production under discussion.

I've never seen a satisfying production of Bacchae (Dionysus in '69 was satisfying as theater, but not as a production of Bacchae), and familiarity with the work of the two lead actors in this one (both of whom DM panned) kept me away. Alan Cumming got it mightily wrong in the last Bacchae I saw - he never played Dionysus; in fact, he never plays anything but Alan Cumming, for which I have a limited tolerance.

Sadly, the Mendelssohn review is not available on line at the NYR site. You have to borrow it from a friend or track it down at the library (October issue). I let my subscription to the NYR lapse because they PILE UP, and too many things in this apartment pile up. I turned down a pass from a charming and intellectually stimulating Frenchman last Tuesday because I didn't want to have to locate him under the other piles. This is unfortunate.

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