Bwog staffers Riva Weinstein and Levi Cohen, who are frequently mistaken for Classicists, headed to the Lenfest Center yesterday for the MFA Directing Thesis Hadrian & Antinous, an original work directed by MFA student Mark Barford and produced by Sami Pyne. The show’s disappointing script was redeemed by excellent directing and design choices.

The stage is set with furniture draped in white cloth. As the lights go up, a chorus of people in loose, pale clothing swirl around the space. First they tear off the cloths. Then they carry away the furniture. One man remains standing, fixed, in the center. This is Antinous (Ezra Li), the historical lover and favorite of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (Kohler McKenzie).

Slowly and deliberately, Antinous allows the chorus to undress him. He is placed upon a pedestal, a cloth draped over his shoulder. As his body lifts, hand upraised to meet the harsh and growing spotlight, an image is burned into the back of the audience’s mind that every lover of the Classics remembers: the deified Antinous, a lover-turned-god.

Mark Barford’s directing thesis Hadrian & Antinous, which he co-wrote with Anna Jastrzembski, tells the story of Hadrian and Antinous from the young lover’s perspective. Born in Greece, the naive and uneducated yet eloquent Antinous is assigned to work as a page in the Roman court. He travels to Rome and works for several months. Antinous eventually catches the interest of the Emperor himself, who offers to teach him to write. The two fall in love and begin a relationship.

During a trip to Libya and Egypt, Hadrian reveals that he is dying of an unknown illness. An oracle tells Antinous that only the ultimate sacrifice will save his beloved. Dutifully, Antinous leaves his tent during a thunderstorm and is struck dead by a lightning bolt, offering his life to the gods in return for Hadrian’s.

Ancient story notwithstanding, Hadrian & Antinous is a very contemporary play. The characters have oddly modern sensibilities about love and relationships, relying too heavily on dialogue cliches and romance tropes. The modern dialogue and costumes render the more “ancient” moments, like Hadrian killing a wild lion with a spear, tonally inconsistent. The supposed setting – the 2nd century Roman Empire – exists as little more than a laurel wreath and a reference to triremes or Dionysus.

The director’s note states that Barford happened across Hadrian and Antinous’ story while “searching for historical gay love stories to warm my soul”. He intended the play to appeal to the modern LGBT+ community, to tell a story that deserved to be heard. That’s a fine and meaningful aspiration. The problem comes when the playwright engages not with the past as it is recorded, but with a softer, more palatable, and more generic version of the past. Removing the historical specificity, complexity, and even ugliness of Hadrian and Antinous’ story (for example, Hadrian’s Antisemitic policies and his erotic poetry) denies the gay community exposure to a rich and valuable history.

Luckily, Barford proves a much better director than playwright. The play rises above its script to provide a truly entertaining and impactful ninety-minute experience: a showcase of excellent movement work, stunning tableaus, and a cast so attuned to each other that they seemed to move as a single organism. From the many-bodied Libyan “beast” to the Thousand-Hand Dance interpretation of the Egyptian oracle, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor more often than my program.

During each scene transition, members of the chorus swirl around Antinous, the only primary actor who seems to be aware of them. They interact with him – poking and prodding, dressing and undressing, making violent movements towards him, always looking. Antinous struggles against them, but they succeed in the end. This is not Hadrian’s Antinous, but Antinous after deification: the people’s god. Through their worship, they control him, erasing his personhood and agency. With Antinous’ self-sacrifice, he not only saves Hadrian, but submits himself to this terrible transformation from human to god. It’s only a pity that Antinous doesn’t die until the end of the play: his deification, frankly, is more interesting than his life.

Li and McKenzie are an electric pair, their characters’ relationship developed largely through glances and touches. The contrast in their physicalities is pronounced and beautiful, making moments like their first sex scene almost like passionate dance sequences. While the majority of the runtime is given over to the central pair (and the chorus), Kelly Strandemo and Andres Robledo make the most of their roles as Sabina and the Scribe, respectively. Strandemo is rightfully wrathful in her small scene as Hadrian’s neglected wife, and Robledo— playing a former lover of the emperor’s— haunts Antinous as a vision of his potential future. Robledo also gets the most comedic moments in the play, delivering his acerbic one-liners effortlessly.

Jenn Burkhardt’s lighting was effective throughout. The upstage screen, used to separate indoor and outdoor spaces, turned translucent when backlit. Moments like Antinous leaving his warm oil lamp to venture into the blue nighttime, or Hadrian’s golden laurel being backlit by an amber glow, were particularly powerful. Matt Coggins’ sound design was competent if unremarkable, lending atmosphere in particular to the scene transitions performed by the chorus. Ted Boyce-Smith’s projections tended towards functionality above all else, with a repetitive papyrus-like effect to show the passage of time.

Hadrian & Antinous was a beautifully acted and directed thesis, with a consistently interesting narrative that left quite a few people in the theater sniffling near the end. Our major frustration lay in the script, and the knowledge of what it could have been: an analysis of the line between interpersonal love and divine worship, an exploration of the complex homoerotic institutions of 2nd century Rome, a narrative that grows all the more tangled and tragic after Antinous’ death – when Hadrian is left with only cold marble statues to comfort him.

Poster by Annie Jin Wang.