There’s something special about attending the world premiere of a play – a frisson of excitement in the audience that lets you know right off that, with luck, you might end up telling your grandkids that you were there way back when it was officially unveiled. Or it could turn out to be a bomb that is quickly and blessedly forgotten; you never know until it unfolds before your eyes. It’s a heady moment of potentiality.
I experienced one of those moments last weekend at a mid-Hudson venue that specializes in delivering them on an annual basis: Bard SummerScape. The new play in question – whose run continues through July 20 – is Love in the Wars, a translation and adaptation by the acclaimed Irish novelist John Banville of the “ultimately untranslatable” Heinrich von Kleist’s romantic drama Penthesilea. It’s an audacious take on a millennia-old subject that manages to merge high classicism with ironic modernity of language, often in the same speech.
The play is set during the Trojan War, but make no mistake: This is not your Greek Classics 101 Trojan War. If you come to see it expecting the narrative that has become so familiar via Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid or even Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, you’re going to find yourself utterly baffled. Best forget anything that you ever heard about Achilles’ ankle being his only vulnerable part.
This tale of the involvement in that conflict of a volunteer squadron of Amazon fighters, culminating in a fatal combat between their queen Penthesilea (Birgit Huppuch) and the Greek champion Achilles (Chris Stack), is loosely based on an episode that never made it into standard sources. Kleist and Banville’s versions even overturn some basic premises of the Classical Greek and Roman writers who do record the story – Quintus Smyrnaeus, Pseudo-Apollodorus, Proclus and Diodorus Siculus among them – by having Penthesilea take Achilles captive and eventually do him in, instead of having the Greek captain kill the warrior queen in their very first clash, as per the Classical canon.
This more protracted encounter gives the two famous fighters time to become smitten with one another, and it’s the madness of sudden passion that forms the propulsive core of this hothouse drama. Modern pop psychology explains the difficulty that the sexes have in understanding each other by saying that men are from Mars and women from Venus; in this case, both parties are very much from Mars – in fact, Penthesilea is traditionally described as a half-human daughter of the war god Ares. But what we have here is failure to communicate, make no mistake. Admiring his top-shelf warrior genes, the Amazon wants Achilles for her mate, but is bound by her tribal traditions to conquer him first. For his part, the hitherto-undefeated Greek hero gets a little too cocky, repeatedly (and fatally) underestimating his rival on account of her sex.
Complicating matters are the shifting tides of battle, the Trojan forces caught in the middle, the question of appropriate treatment of prisoners of war, the other Greek leaders’ impatience with the headstrong Achilles and differing priorities amongst the Amazon leadership, who have certain religious rituals to fulfill before they can take their hunky captives home for procreation purposes. There’s some nifty swordplay as well as a fair bit of strategy talk, with Jeffrey Binder as the wily Odysseus predictably getting the cleverest lines on the Greek side. KeiLyn Jones convincingly radiates command as Agamemnon, with Karen Kandel as the High Priestess exuding a balancing power among the Amazons. Karen Pittman (currently appearing in a small role in the movie Begin Again, reviewed elsewhere in this edition of Almanac Weekly) brings lots of heart to the part of Penthesilea’s most intimate friend and advisor, Prothoë, who labors in vain to talk some sense into the desire-addled queen.
Both principal actors do an excellent job. Stack as Achilles comes across as every bit as full of himself as any swaggering overpaid sports star, though not immune to a formidable woman’s charms. Working herself into a frustrated frenzy, Huppuch effectively channels the Furies that supposedly tormented Penthesilea after she accidentally killed her sister-queen Hippolyta while out hunting. That bit of backstory isn’t mentioned in Love in the Wars, but you can read it in the actress’ every tense, explosive move.
Obie-winning director Ken Rus Schmoll moves his chesspieces adroitly and without fuss around a stage brilliantly devoid of any scenery except for a sloping white backdrop where characters not currently in the action fade into mist, and a dirt floor that turns to mud as rain – lots of it – pours down from above as the impassioned pair gird for their final battle. Special props to Marsha Ginsberg for the ingeniously atmospheric set design.
Inventive staging choices can make a production especially memorable, but when it comes to durability, the play’s the thing. Banville has done a masterful job of modernizing a quirky, iconoclastic work by an early-19th-century German Romantic, interweaving lines that seems as colloquial and immediate as anything that you’d hear on the street with soaring passages as mannered-but-lyrical as a Shakespearean soliloquy – all without the seams showing. For its language alone, it’s a work that deserves a firm place in the repertoire of 21st-century theater; but only time will tell who takes it up next. So it would be wise to catch it while you can, this weekend at the black-box Theater Two in the Fisher Center on the Bard College campus.
Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 17 through 19, with 2 p.m. matinées both Saturday and Sunday, July 19 and 20. Tickets cost $25 to $50 and can be obtained by calling (845) 758-7900 or visiting https://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape.
John Banville & Heinrich von Kleist’s Love in the Wars, Bard SummerScape, Thursday-Saturday, July 17-19, 7:30 p.m., Saturday/Sunday, July 19/20, 2 p.m., $25-$50, Bard College, 60 Manor Avenue, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape.