On Friday, Bwog classical philologist and eater of bread John Sarlitto journeyed to 438 BCE (aka the basement of the Diana Center) to view the Classics Department’s Ancient Greek production of Euripides’ Alcestis.
Each spring, the Barnard/Columbia Ancient Drama Group convenes to mount a performance of a classical text in its original Greek or Latin. Like Nestor, the geriatric know-it-all of Iliadic fame, your reviewer has borne witness to three generations of this tradition, one of the most cherished rituals of the cult of antiquity worship and financial unviability that is the Columbia classics community.
This year, director Claire Catenaccio, a PhD candidate in classics, chose Alcestis, a lesser known work of Euripides, the playwright whose timeless baby mama drama Medea is a fixture of first semester Lit Hum. The play tells the story of Admetus (Ridge Montes, CC’13), a Thessalian king who agrees to allow his wife, the titular character Alcestis (Gavin McGown, CC’13), to die in his place in order to extend his own life. Needless to say, this decision precipitates much angst and self-examination, but the play is by no means an unambiguous tragedy, not least due to its utterly ambiguous conclusion. It is instead tragicomic, encompassing what Claire calls “two distinct idioms” as scenes of drunken debauchery and flatulence are juxtaposed with deep ruminations on mortality, love, duty, and gender.
Thankfully, the acting measures up to the formidable task of capturing these contradictions without attempting to superficially resolve them. Montes skillfully and believably renders Admetus’ descent into grief, and McGown, through his understated expressiveness and lilting pronunciation of the Greek, ably captures the haunting final moments of Alcestis’ life. The standout performances, however, belong to Max Singer, whose Death truly is anthropomorphized creepiness, and Talia Varonos-Pavolopoulos (CC’09, NYU PhD candidate), who almost singlehandedly puts the “comedy” back in “tragicomedy.” Her Herakles, complete with tricycle, superhero makeup, and faux fur, was the clear audience favorite.
The supporting elements of what Catenaccio termed, in perfectly accented German, a Gesamtkunstwerk, worked to showcase the same ambiguity. Irreverent kazoos complemented somber pianos in the musical score, while outrageously elaborate costumes sparkled on an otherwise sparse stage. The chorus included modern dance (in the form of undergraduates Rachel Herzog (B’15) and Robin Albrecht (GS)) as yet another expressive dimension.
And what of the language barrier, the 800 lb. Cyclops in the room? An English translation, prepared by Sarah Kaczor (another classics graduate student), was projected above the performers. Annoyingly, it often seemed to overstep or lag behind the stage dialogue, but it was in substance snappy and idiomatic. Besides, many in the audience reveled in catching puns and learned allusions in the original. To paraphrase Herakles when he speaks of his duel with Death, this was no one’s first rodeo.
This brings up the question, naturally, of the value of a production like Alcestis to both its participants and its viewers. “Let’s just say,” said Claire, “that if this play were on Broadway, I’d perform it in English.” Indeed, the cast, crew, and audience of the show seemed for the most part attracted by the opportunity to experience a dead language resurrected, which, to put it mildly, holds a niche appeal. However, all of the reasons we return time and time again to Greek drama were on full display in Alcestis: memorable characters, stimulating plot, and, most importantly, relatable attempts to consider humanity’s great questions. “Alcestis pushes the envelope,” said Catenaccio, “by putting fully developed psychological characters into a stock fairytale.” This genius of Euripides combined with the immense talent and enthusiasm of the actors ensures that the uninitiated will appreciate and enjoy Alcestis as much as anyone. Having spent my fair share of time toiling over aorist participles, though, it’s difficult for me to imagine even Nestor taking serious issue with this production.
Alcestis played to four consecutive full houses in the Diana Black Box this weekend.
Photo credit to Joseph Henry Ritter.