The Persians... a comedy about war with five songs: A Cry For Peace from Ancient Greece
Actors don't usually get very excited when they're cast as "the messenger". Unless, of course, they're playing the messenger in Aeschylus'The Persians. This ancient Greek drama is the earliest surviving play in Western civilization and the messenger is the plum role.
You might also call The Persians the earliest surviving documentary. Aeschylus was fighting for Greece when they nearly wiped out the entire invading Persian army, a much larger force, by outmaneuvering them. He wrote his play from the point of view of the Persians remaining in their homeland awaiting news of the war. When a messenger arrives, he delivers a lengthy speech describing in great detail the disastrous decisions that lead to the violent death of nearly every able-bodied man in Persia. It's an extraordinary, moving scene, especially when you consider it's an eyewitness account from nearly 2,500 years ago. Soon after, the Persian King Xerxes returns and has a long speech reciting the names of the brave and patriotic men he saw slain. In both these speeches Aeschylus recognizes the heroism of his enemy, acknowledging their belief in the justice of their cause.
During the George W. Bush administration there have been at least a few New York productions of The Persians presented by companies wishing to emphasize parallels between the ancient conflict and today's Iraqi war. Aeschylus' play concerns the leader the world's most powerful army waging war against a smaller one; a war his father started, but never satisfactorily concluded. Though supporters of the present administration may disagree with the interpretation, it is one of the primary sources of comedy for The Persians... a comedy about war with five songs, a left-leaning musical sketch comedy adaptation of the ancient text.
Waterwell Productions created this quick-moving 75 minute piece through collaboration and improvisation. Authorship credit is given to the cast of four (Hanna Cheek, Rodney Gardiner, Arian Moayed and Tom Ridgely, who directed) with additional material by Nicole Parker and music composed by Lauren Cregor. Keeping Aeschylus' dramatic structure, the troupe turns each scene into a more contemporary comedy bit. But where the original author treated the fallen nation with sympathy, Waterwell paints the Persian leaders (and the Bush administration) as arrogant, bullying bad guys. Your agreement or lack of agreement with that view will obviously color your potential to be entertained by their antics.
There's an MTV reality show spoof showing Persian families on edge with each other while waiting for news from the front. The deceased King Darius comes back in song as a funked-up James Brown-ish ghost. A vaudeville song-and-dance team buck-and-wings a lesson on Persian culture with a melody strongly suggesting Stephen Schwartz's "All For The Best" from Godspell.
Through it all the cast remains aware of themselves as actors in a show. Gardiner continually hits on Cheek, despite her constant reminding that she's gay, and Moayed, who was born in Iran (at that time a part of Persia) tries to clear up American misunderstandings about his people.
And although much of the show is very funny and there are some strong laughs to be had, there's also quite a bit of material that never gets off the ground. The MTV skit has a running gag involving the word "faggot" that didn't really work the first time. A routine where Moayed teaches the audience racial slurs against Greeks in his native language made me feel a bit uneasy at how enthusiastically the crowd repeated hate speech at his request. And when the messenger does come out for his famous war story, an edited version of Aeschylus' original, he does so as a sports reporter with Cheek and Gardiner performing a slapstick boxing match to his description. Neither funny nor moving.
There is an interesting take on Xerxes final speech, which I won't reveal, but even that is compromised by a background choral chanting which sneaks in an inappropriate gag just when there was a chance for some poignancy.
Still, the talented and amiable cast dives into the material with brash energy, and with some fun staging by Ridgely there's always the sense that something amusing is going on.
Photos by Ryan Jensen: Top: Arian Moayed and Tom Ridgely
Bottom: Rodney Gardiner and Hanna Cheek