The Persians…a comedy about war with five songs

Waterwell, the smart and vigorous young theatre company responsible for The Persians, subtitles this piece "a comedy about war with five songs." That's accurate; I'd suggest "a postmodern vaudeville about war and Aeschylus's seminal play about war" as an even more vivid description. With a blend of merry deconstructionist / avant-garde exuberance and passionate idealism that almost borders on sweet naivete, these energetic artists have created a hugely entertaining, enormously affecting, and utterly contemporary meditation / response / plea for sanity around the oldest extant play in Western civilization. If you know Aeschylus's Persians I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what these folks have done to it in a quest to make it timely and resonant. And if you don't, you'll actually see a surprisingly clear and faithful adaptation of it here, one that drives all of the original's main points home and will, I hope, make you want to find out more about what the classical Greeks had to say about politics and life.

Waterwell's approach to classic theatre is to pull it apart like a quilt, remaking each section in a new and accessible style that conveys the content while somehow commenting on it at the same time. This is oft-attempted and almost always perilous: risks of preciousness, egoism, gratuitousness, and many other dangers are rampant. One of the reasons I think Waterwell manages it so successfully here is that their production of Persians is intended to be genuinely enlightening and responsible rather than subversive or self-referential. Their intent here is, I think, to communicate the play as honestly and clearly as possible in terms of its themes and values—artistic and cultural, in addition to moral—while at the same time drawing on the company members' strengths as performers attuned to contemporary popular culture and styles.

So the show opens with a Fosse-esque musical number inviting us into the play and introducing its principal ideas and characters: the performers are literally in bowler hats and black pinstripe suits as they gyrate tightly to the first of Lauren Cregor's engaging tunes. There follows a series of sketches/scenes in which the main incidents and ideas of the famous play are reinterpreted in often unexpected ways—a sitcom family that could almost be The Simpsons introduces us to life in Persia during the war with Greece (c. 472 BC); the glamorous Persian Queen Atossa, decked out like Judy Garland in the "Get Happy" number of Summer Stock, bemoans the hubristic decision made by her son, King Xerxes, to launch the invasion without provocation, jeopardizing the stability and sanctity of an empire that, at the time, was the most powerful on Earth. Later, a messenger's recitation of the dire final defeat of the Persians is accompanied by a stylized boxing match inspired by Charlie Chaplin movies (in which, tellingly, a referee played by the same actor who plays Xerxes keeps pushing the faltering Persian fighter back into the ring); and Atossa's dead husband, the great King Darius, emerges from the grave singing a slick funky tune, complete with a pair of backup singer/dancers doing harmony and cool synchronized moves. An expositional interlude features two actors singing counterpoint—one in Persian, about the necessity for war with Greece; the other in English, about the necessity for war with Persia (or Iran, or Iraq, or Bin Laden, or whoever... the politics of this show are not particularly subtle).

The man singing in Persian (Farsi, actually) is Arian Moayed, who, in addition to taking the role of Xerxes, frequently plays himself—i.e., a young American actor who emigrated to the United States from Iran when he was five years old. The tension of having someone of Persian ancestry on stage in this show is exploited in numerous interesting ways here, as when the final tragic monologue of the defeated King is rendered in Farsi. Here and in a few other places, Waterwell finds its way into the play via ancient ritual instead of pop culture, employing chants and heightened speech to remind us of the potency of Aeschylus's unadorned dramatic poetry. This brings a second tension into the proceedings, that of the traditional versus the iconic.

The creators of this show are also its performers—the aforementioned Moayed, Tom Ridgely (who is also the director; kudos), Hanna Cheek, and Rodney Gardiner. They all do terrific work here, showcasing particular talents like Gardiner's musical ability, Ridgely's flair for comic impersonation and athletic dancing, Cheek's assured parody of divahood, and Moayed's range as comic and dramatic actor. Choreographers Kate Mehan and Lynn Peterson have supplied the company with appropriate moves that conjure a variety of theatrical styles. Cregor's songs, performed by Jeremy Daigle on guitar and Joe Morse on bass (and both on percussion), are tuneful and fun.

There are the occasional missteps here, to be sure; that's to be expected when artists take risks. But for the most part, The Persians works, and the cumulative impact is breathtaking, realizing the tragedy and humanity of the play's message with power and acuity.