`What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?'
Carey Perloff doesn't have Hamlet's motive, but
plenty of the passion and decisiveness the melancholy Dane
lacked. Perloff's `Hecuba' (now at the A.C.T. Geary
Theater through Nov. 22) will make you weep and experience
something approaching catharsis.
The artistic director of the American Conservatory
Theater -- superb stage director of the SF Opera Center's
`Iphigenie en Tauride' a few months back -- created a
magnificent opera from Euripides' play.
What makes it an opera?
When you look at the 424 B.C.E. `Hecuba,' the first
stage direction has Hecuba enter `chanting,' and the second has
the chorus of Trojan women `singing.' But that's not it.
Perloff employs the wondrous a capella women's chorus
KITKA on stage, with their East European/Greek sound that's haunting
even without drama. And that doesn't make this production an
In the title role, Olympia Dukakis rises in red-tinged
mist from the ground, Erda-like, and that's just opera-like.
But when you see her face and body frozen in the
terror of having lost two sons (Hector and Paris); facing the
sacrifice of her daughter, Polyxena, in Achilles' honor;
suspecting that her young son, Polydoros, may be murdered
already; and knowing that Cassandra will be killed by
Clytemnestra -- as she gasps, `Where are the words?...
that's where the `play' leaves off and `opera' begins.
The enormity of her tragedy, Dukakis' performance,
the chant of the chorus (vitally interacting here with the
characters, *becoming* characters, not standing in the back),
Kate Edmunds' soaring set, Timberlake Wertenbaker's
adaptation, and Perloff's genius add up to a grand,
`operatic' experience of emotional extremes and true
The Wertenbaker version is true to the original,
even though this 100-minute production is a fraction of
what the play requires. And still, the words and thoughts
are there, and even when Wertenbaker deviates from the
original in words, he conveys the meaning. The Euripides
conclusion, for example, in the E. P. Coleridge translation:
`Away to the harbour and the tents, my friends, to prove
the toils of slavery! for such is fate's relentless hest.'
And Wertenbaker ends the play: `History has no compassion.'
You `have to be there' to experience the authenticity of that.
`Hecuba' should make sense to anybody, but the poignancy
is palpable if you know a bit about what happened before and
after. Consider the difference in meaning to different audiences
as Agamemnon declares at the end: `God grant we reach our country
and find all well at home, released from troubles here!' It's
either a bland statement of hope or, if you know your Richard Strass
(or, second best, read the `Iliad') you realize the tragic
irony of it.
How I'd love to see `Turandot' directed by Perloff
(with Mark Spencer in the title role...:)
`Curb thy bold tongue, and do not, because of thy own woes,
thus embrace the whole race of women in one reproach; for
though some of us, and those a numerous class, deserve to
be disliked, there are others amongst us who rank naturally
amongst the good.' -- Chorus in `Hecuba'
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