10 September 2012

Idomeneus, by Sideshow Theatre

This world-premiere production of German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig's drama about what happened to the Cretan king who joined his forces with Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus in the Trojan War, is a surprisingly engaging meditation on what-might-have-been.

Homer has nothing too remarkable to say about Idomeneus. He was a doughty warrior, and even held his own against Hector, but the Iliad ends before he gets home. Later writers, including the fourth century Italian Maurus Servius Honoratus and the French 17th century writer François Fénelon took up the tale: Idomeneus, returning from Troy with 80 ships, is caught in a violent storm that destroys 79 of them, and threatens to destroy his own.  Desperate to save his life, he promises Poseidon, the sea god, to sacrifice the first creature he encounters when he reaches land.

Are warning bells going off?  A middling familiarity with mythology teaches us, Never make bargains with gods. Having never learned that lesson, Idomeneus arrives home, and the first creature he encounters is his own son, grown to manhood in his father's 10-year-absence.  Oath-bound to kill his son, he does so, avoiding the wrath of Poseidon, but incurring the wrath of the other gods. His country suffers from a mysterious plague, which the populace eventually connects with the king's return, and banishes him. 

Or he does not kill his son.  In another version of the story, Poseidon excuses him from this murder in exchange for abdication. A related story has Idomeneus' wife, Meda, seduced and murdered by Leucus, who takes the throne and chases Idomeneus away when he arrives. (In this story, Leucus seduced Meda on behalf of Nauplius, who bore a grudge against Idomeneus, Agamemnon, and Odysseus over the death of his son; Nauplius' revenge was to arrange for the three kings' wives to betray their husbands).

In any case, that something very, very bad happened to Idomeneus after he came home from the Trojan war feels very true and very Greek.

Why is that?  As my husband put it (and as Schimmelpfennig makes Idomeneus whine in his play), "It's not fair." The poor man spent 10 years at war, finally won (almost miraculously keeping his army and its followers intact), and--days from home or even nearer--is nearly overcome by a storm.  But since when are Greek gods fair?  Throughout the Trojan war, the gods also battled, under the banners of Aphrodite or Athena. We know, from Homer's Odyssey, how Odysseus suffered after the war. And we know, both from the Odyssey, and, vividly, from Aeschylus' Oresteia, how the gods on the Trojan side avenged themselves on Agamemnon. It would be surprising if Idomeneus came to a good end.

But the diversity of stories and sources, and their relative lack of authority (after all, Homer is silent on Idomeneus' return home) provide a terrific opportunity for Schimmelpfennig to offer his own vision. Rather than dramatize a single narrative, his Idomeneus uses the incantations of a Greek chorus to spin out multiple permutations of the Cretan king's story.  Individual and dual performers weave in and out of the chorus as they represent individual characters, who play, and replay, scenes from different perspectives. The production manages to strike a balance between emotional distance and commitment.  Contributing to distance are the refusal to stick with a particular version of the story, the mostly third-person storytelling, and occasional humor. Contributing to commitment are simple yet spectacular set (featuring a tidal wave made of wood that forms the backdrop of the production, and a sandbox in the foreground, representing the beach where Idomeneus lands), generally excellent acting, provocative and often moving gestures, and the emotional impact of the writing/translation itself.

The Sideshow Theatre has mounted an excellent production of an intriguing play.

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