Anne Bogart: Excavating The Persians
SITI Company performs the western world’s oldest surviving play, at Getty Villa
By Deborah Behrens
Given current news reports from the Middle East, it should surprise no one that the topic of the western world’s oldest surviving play concerns the hubris of war and its ensuing fallout. What makes Aeschylus’ 472 BCE drama The Persians a theatrical landmark is that it both recounts an actual historic battle in the Greco-Persian wars and employs individual characters that exist separately from the Greek Chorus.
“A sliver of it was text,” explains Anne Bogart, founder and co-artistic director of New York-based SITI Company, who returns to the Getty Villa to helm a new translation by Aaron Poochigian entitled simply Persians, opening September 3 at the outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theatre
“The bulk of it was dance, singing, spectacle — kind of a vaudeville experience. There were many aspects to it. What I think I’ve learned is that the birth of tragedy involved the putting together of many different kinds of performance.”
“[The Persians] takes us back to the origins of Greek tragedy when people sang and danced more in the plays than they did 25-30 years later,” says Shelby Brown, education specialist at the Getty Villa. “So that’s part of what [SITI Company] is dealing with . . . complex meter and song. It’s also about a real war and the destruction of one’s enemy. So we have the Chorus, a real war and a complicated ancient language.”
The Persians is the only remaining portion of a trilogy that won first prize in Athens’s City Dionysia festival in 472 BCE. The play deals with the naval Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE in which the heavily outnumbered Greeks defeated a much larger fleet of Persian ships. Aeschylus participated in that battle and the subsequent speech he wrote for the Messenger is said to be its earliest account. While written from the vantage point of the Athenian victors, the play is also seen to sympathize with the defeated Persians.
“It is the only one from that day to come down to us,” Brown adds. “It was chosen over many centuries by various scholars and grammarians as worth copying and re-copying. “Any play that we have was copied by hand for about 2,000 years until the invention of the printing press. This one was seen as emblematic of Aeschylus’s work.”
Set in Susa, Iran at the royal palace of Xerxes, the King of Persia, the piece offers little in terms of action. Queen Mother Atossa awaits news with the Chorus in the tomb of her dead husband King Darius, Xerxes’s father. A messenger runs in to recount the horrific details of the battle and announce that Xerxes has escaped alive. Atossa summons the ghost of Darius to speak. Xerxes returns in defeat to mourn with the others at the end.
This is not the first time The Persians has rolled through Southern California. The American Peter Sellars staged Robert Auletta’s translation at the Los Angeles Festival in 1993, responding to the Gulf War of 1990-1991.
The SITI Company cast features Ellen Lauren (Queen Attossa), Stephen Duff Webber (King Darius), Gian-Murray Gianino (Xerxes) and Will Bond (Messenger) with Akiko Aizawa, J. Ed Araiza, Eric Berryman, Leon Ingulsrud, and Emily Spalding as the Chorus.
“It seems to be a play where nothing happens and yet there are these amazing entrances,” offers Bogart over dinner after a weekday rehearsal. “All the scholars say the Queen’s entrance was on a chariot and was this huge theatrical coup. Similarly [dynamic is] the Messenger’s entrance. He ran from Greece. It would take months to run from Greece to Susa. And then [comes] Darius, you evoke his ghost, and finally Xerxes. So it’s a series of four entrances and each of them has to be spectacular. No pressure, right?” She laughs.
Excavating an Unknown People
The Persians was chosen as the Getty’s 2014 production following three days of public play readings held in mid-May 2013 at its Villa Lab. Three plays — The Bacchae, Ion and The Persians – were each read by SITI Company members and guest artists, with post-performance discussions between actors and audience moderated by Bogart. The decision to go with the oldest extant play evolved from further dialogue between SITI, Shelby Brown and Getty Villa associate curators Dr. Mary Louise Hart and Kenneth Lapatin. It marks the second outdoor production at the Villa for the internationally renowned ensemble following 2011’s Trojan Women (After Euripides).
“There was lots of back and forth about the notion of The Persians being the first [extant] play,” said Bogart at an earlier press event. “As a theater company who is very much invested in theater from our past — where we come from, our genealogy — the honor of doing the first play is extraordinary. Sometimes I say, if theater were a verb, it would be, ‘to remember.’ To put things back together again.”
“We’ve been working as a company for a long time with certain technical acting techniques that have their roots in ancient theater traditions from all over the world,” added SITI Company co-artistic director Leon Ingulsrud. “There’s a curiosity in how to reach back to these very ancient techniques and bring them into the present in a way that actually makes sense. And not just academically interesting for the nerds or geeks about this material but in a way that actually connects with a real audience in the present. It’s something we think about a lot. How does this artifact actually live in the real world now? Persians as a play doesn’t give us an out.
“We have to face these deeper really fundamental questions about what you are doing when you put up a play. What is this idea of the chorus? Why did theater start there?”
The Chorus is usually cited as the reason most directors or companies want to tackle an ancient Greek play despite it being the hardest to fully realize. Budget constraints often limit local casting to CalArts, UCLA or USC student actors, but their relative inexperience versus veteran actors in the main roles has thus far offered mixed results. Bogart plans to sidestep the issue.
“The chorus is the heart of the Greek play,” she notes. “SITI Company has been together for 22 years now so the company should be the chorus. Out of the chorus is born character. We go from diegetic narrative and Homeric narrative to suddenly an embodied character living through something. Ellen becomes the Queen out of the Chorus and [hence] the first character. Not entirely true, but we’re pretending.”
“At the end of rehearsal today we hit upon a really essential question, which is — who are the Persians?” remarks Ellen Lauren, who played Hecuba in 2011’s Trojan Women and is the third SITI Company co-artistic director. “I came into this piece not really understanding just how complex and sophisticated and mysterious it is. Instead it has only confounded me and I think my colleagues more and more. What do you feature and to whom are you speaking and what are you saying?”
Lauren admits the question is a deep one, both emotionally and politically. According to her, while Aeschylus’ play focuses on the Persians as “other,” it also looks at the other “dealing with the self and one’s own hubris . . . There’s never been a more heartbreaking time I think to look at that question then right now. Each day, I’m so grateful we chose this piece, although it’s becoming more and more of a mountain to have to scale.”
Simple it is not, Bogart concurs, when asked how this compares to their normal prep for any new production.
“This is off the charts because who the hell are they?” the renowned director asks. “Even in Trojan Women, in which not a lot happens, it’s clearly Trojan women who are feeling the affects of the Greek’s wrath. Yes, it’s the Persians, but nobody understood the Persians. The Trojan War was already 500 years old if it did exist. So there was lot of mythology tied to it. [Aeschylus tackling] the Greco-Persian War was like writing about what happened in Afghanistan. It was so recent.
“And then, who are we to perform it? What does that mean? And for whom? And why? Every major big question comes up when you approach it.”
There and Back Again
Bogart is well known for posing big questions while diving into deep waters for answers. Since her last Getty production, she has helmed projects such as A Rite, a dance-theatre work based on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, co-directed with Bill T. Jones and Janet Wong, which was performed by SITI Company and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company; Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma at the Washington National Opera, Washington D.C. and Steel Hammer, music and lyrics by Julia Wolfe with original text by four playwrights, at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Not to mention writing anothernew book entitled What’s the Story: Essays about art, theater and storytelling.
Her much noted passion for site-specific work extends to Persians. Unlike last year’s production ofPrometheus Bound, directed by Travis Preston, which strapped the titular protagonist atop a 23-foot tall steel wheel placed in front of the Villa museum, Bogart has chosen to drape the museum’s entire facade with Christo-like saffron fabric to elicit the feel of an ancient Persian court.
“It’s the thing you can’t control,” she says. “You never know with the wind because it will always be slightly different. It’s sort of the wild card. What I do understand about this space is to not get in the way of it. It has so much to say. I can’t imagine a set designer designing anything close to this.”
As for costumes, Bogart plans to have the actors begin in present day garb before transitioning to attire of the past. She hopes to go in two directions simultaneously – from present to past and back again.
“When we meet the actors, they’re not dressed in togas,” she reveals. “They are dressed in slightly formal clothes that are of our time and you’re going with them from the contemporary world back to the ancient. In other words, the story is — this is a group of people who are trying to access this place. To listen to it, evoke it, do an archeological dig. At first Greek, into English, then there’s character. Things emerge.”
When asked if they plan to address events currently happening in war zones like Gaza, Iraq or Syria, she says yes but the trick is “not to hit it directly.”
“For me the key is when Xerxes comes in at the end and he’s devastated. His own hubris has caused the destruction of his entire culture. Can we both hear it as something that happened a very long time ago but also hear the cries of what’s happening in the Middle East? Without putting a spin on it or without putting him in military jihad clothes? I hope we can get somewhere close to that.
“But, if it’s not totally about that by the end, we’re in trouble. We haven’t done our work. We should be cognizant of the world we live in. That’s the genius of the Greek plays, too. They still mean so much.”
She recalls what happened when SITI Company toured Trojan Women after the Getty Villa run in fall 2011.
“We took it to Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) the week after Hurricane Sandy. So Ellen is standing there as Hecuba saying, ‘my city’s in ruins.’ Fast forward to April 2013. We do the play in Boston. The company is on a train arriving at the station when they hear something’s happened. They get off and learn that the bombing had just occurred. People were shut down in their houses and we couldn’t tech. We finally opened a day late. And it’s the same thing.
“The audience hears Hecuba going on about the destruction of her city. It’s unbelievable.”
Persians, Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, 17985 E. Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades 90272. Opens Sept. 3. Thurs-Sat., 8 p.m.; through September 27. (310) 440-7300, getty.edu; $42. (Preview August 30, $25)