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Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008

Tragic History

Theater Review

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   If one subscribed to Aristotle's definition of the history play, Aeschylus' The Persians might be placed in that genre. After all, it is constructed around a particular event, namely the Battle of Salamis, and describes rather than shows the events surrounding Persia's staggering defeat at the hands of the Greeks. However, the moral message at the heart of the play, that loss and failure inevitably greet all acts of hubris, holds the universal currency Aristotle ascribed to tragedy.

  Renaissance Theaterworks' production of the play heightens its universal themes-not through the obvious ploy of a contemporized setting, but by amplifying its emotional resonance. In this lean and fluid production one isn't left to simply admire and eventually tire of the descriptions of a mighty nation's unaccountable defeat but can identify with its losses through the characters' beautifully articulated grief.

  The greatest burden falls on the queen, and Marti Gobel bears it well. Visually striking in her statuesque postures and sinuous movements, she's the empire's remote and tragic figurehead when occupying the elevated royal platform. However, when she stumbles from her regal perch, she is the grief-stricken widow and mother of a dead king and belligerent son. The only criticism one might make of Gobel's performance is the lack of gravity in her movements and vocal intonations. However, when the dead king returns briefly, draped in the mustiness of the grave to which he's tethered, his keening lamentations contrast well with her vital misery.

  Nicholas Harazin and Travis Knight offered evocative performances as the messenger and the defeated King Xerxes, the former choking on the galling visions he's encountered and the latter on a wounded pride that pierces through his dejection. The chorus serves as a rhythmic armature for the play, an effect reinforced by the linear, extruded form of the stage and the back-and-forth movement it elicits. The traditional theater setting is turned on its side, with seating arranged along both lengths of the theater and the stage occupying the narrow space between.

  The music and lighting effects that accompany the play are among its few lavish touches and help amplify its dramatic aspects, staving off the stultifying effect that the lyrical but long-drawn-out verses sometimes have on the audience. One of the few inauspicious moments in the production is the ghost's "Thriller"-type entrance. One of the greatest moments is the finale, when Xerxes anoints himself with the earth of his city, and undergoes the catharsis that's usually the rightful province of the audience. We are left to infer that his greed and pride will continue to guide him. As the discontented but servile chorus follows their king offstage, we're offered a poignant reminder of the mute onlookers who seem to sanction the excesses of every age.

  Runs through Nov. 2 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre.