Quick! Name an Amazon. You said Hippolyta, right? She’s about the only one whom most of us know by name, either as the wild bride of Duke Theseus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or as Wonder Woman’s badass mother in the world of DC Comics.
But ancient Greek sources cite warrior women of the Amazon sisterhood by the dozen. One of the most renowned was Penthesilea, daughter of the war god Ares, who went to fight in the Trojan War on the home team’s side after accidentally slaying her sister Hippolyta with a spear while hunting. A glorious death in battle, apparently, was the remedy of the day for being tormented incessantly by the Furies (what they called PTSD way back when) for her poor aim.
Penthesilea’s participation in the war, arriving during or just after Hector’s funeral, is not mentioned by Homer in the Iliad. But quite a few other Greek and Roman sources tell the tale of her furious charge through the Greek ranks, exterminating her foes by the dozen while seeking to engage the mighty Achilles himself. The Greek champion appears and makes short work of her, but is smitten with love and remorse when he takes off her helmet and beholds the dying Penthesilea’s beauty. Taunted for sentimentality by his railing countryman Thersites, Achilles kills him in turn, angering his kinsman Diomedes and sparking yet another of the family feuds that so often seem to get in the way of a good honest battle in these ancient Greek epics.
That, more or less, is the official version. But the late 18th/early 19th-century German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist either got something garbled or was inspired to put his own spin on the story: In his romantic drama Penthesilea, he has the warrior queen briefly take Achilles captive, leaving them time for a bit of passion before getting down to the slaying stuff. A brand-new adaptation of Kleist’s “tragicomedy of love and misunderstanding that threatens to derail the course of history” by the Man Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville will debut this weekend at the Fisher Center at Bard College, running through July 20 as the drama component of Bard SummerScape.
Two-time Obie Award-winning director Ken Rus Schmoll helms the world-premiere production of Banville’s Love in the Wars. Another Obie-winner, Birgit Huppuch, will portray Penthesilea, and One Life to Live’s Chris Stack will play Achilles. Also in the cast are Jeffrey Binder as Odysseus, Chad Goodridge as Diomedes, KeiLyn Durrel Jones as Agamemnon, Karen Pittman as Prothoe and Karen Kandel as the Amazon High Priestess.
Banville’s previous adaptation of another Kleist play, The Broken Jug, was well-received. In addition to the prestigious Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, his works have won the 1989 Guinness Peat Aviation award, the 2011 Franz Kafka Prize, the 2013 Irish PEN Award and the 2013 Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He is also the author of eight best-selling mystery novels using the pseudonym Benjamin Black.
Love in the Wars will have two preview performances at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday and Friday, July 10 and 11, before the official opening at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday, July 12. Evening performances will continue on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 17 through 19, with 2 p.m. matinées on Sundays, July 13 and 20, Wednesday, July 16 and Saturday, July 19. Tickets cost $25 to $50 and may be obtained by calling (845) 758-7900 or visiting www.fishercenter.bard.edu.
Love in the Wars, Bard SummerScape, July 10-20, $25/$50,Theater Two, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 60 Manor Avenue, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape.