nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 21, 2007
Euripides's Alcestis is rarely done; and the story itself is not that well-known (apparently, this play is the main account of the myth). Handcart Ensemble continues their commendable mission of presenting thoughtful classical work to New York audiences by mounting this unusual play in a fine version, of fairly recent vintage, by poet Ted Hughes.
The story of Alcestis begins, like so many of the Greek plays, with interference from the gods. Zeus gets mad at his son Apollo for killing the Cyclopes, and so condemns him to work as a servant for a year to the Thessalian king Admetos. Apollo learns that Death is coming for Admetos, and because the king is so beloved by and nurturing to his subjects, Apollo strikes a bargain with Death, to the effect that if a replacement can be found for Admetos, that person shall die instead and Admetos will be spared. But no one volunteers to die for their king (not even Admetos's parents)...except for his beautiful wife Alcestis.
As the play opens, Alcestis has made her decision and is dying. What follows is a fascinating combination of lamentation (by Admetos, Alcestis, and the chorus) about the nature of such an unconditional love, and its effect on the object of that love; and also a fantastical story involving the great hero Heracles, who arrives at Admetos's house right after Alcestis dies, and is deceived by his host about the tragedy because Admetos values hospitality above all else and wants his guest to be comfortable. Eventually Heracles finds out the truth, and makes up for his ignorance by performing a seemingly impossible deed that gives this near-tragedy an optimistic ending.
Much of the second half of the play consists of Heracles recounting his exploits performing the twelve labors for which he is so famous (including, somewhat whimsically, the ones he hasn't done yet). This section is surprisingly delightful, not at all the kind of thing you expect in Greek tragedy, and in Hughes's rendition has the chorus participating as various of the monsters and villains Heracles went up against.
But the majority of Alcestis is a rumination on responsibility, grief, remorse, and solace. Hughes mixes his cosmic references in a deliberately provocative manner, so that characters talk about "God," "gods," and our own essence as atoms and particles interchangably. Apollo tells us at the outset:
Are dead are dead are dead are dead
They return to the pool of atoms.
And that's pretty much the mindset of the piece—except that the living must go on, find comfort and even joy in the mere fact of continuing, of being.
It's interesting (and hard not) to read Alcestis as somehow autobiographical:
All that matters now
Is how Alcestis makes the gift of her life
And dies for her husband,
And how he accepts her gift.
This incredible gift of life.
But to look at the play as simply a widower's attempt to explain and/or atone for his wife's long-ago suicide is probably too reductive. Alcestis is a complicated, insightful work about living with all that has come before in one's life, and moving ahead and beyond as best one can.
Handcart's production—incredibly, a New York premiere: what would we do without this invaluable indie troupe that keeps on finding brilliant poetic drama that others have somehow ignored?—is staged by artistic director J. Scott Reynolds with compassion and simplicity. As is Hardcart's custom, the chorus is masked and delivers many of their lines via chanting and song (there are also several places where Reynolds has the chorus provide subtle but effective sound effects to underscore a speech, an excellent touch). The chorus, whose membership includes all nine actors, drifting in and out of the group as their other character assignments allow, speak the verse clearly and cleanly. David D'Agostini is fine as Heracles, while strong supporting performances are turned in by Robert Mobley and Jane Pejtersen as two of Admetos's servants and Nicholas Alexiy Moran as both Heracles's companion Iolaus and Death himself.