“At the bottom, all wars are the same because they involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.”
Theatre, like all art, is at its most intense when the boundary between fiction and real life is at its most diaphanous. Aquila Theatre’s current production of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, translated by Peter Meineck, adapted and directed by Desiree Sanchez and playing at the GK ArtsCenter in Dumbo, is performed entirely by military veterans. They know what it is to be conscripted or to volunteer, to fight and to come home to a world that is changed by the politics of the very war they were fighting. Some of them served in Vietnam, others more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have lived what the great Greek authors wrote about more than two thousand years ago.
This is no gimmick; the performers are also accomplished actors and writers, many of them have been trained at the best institutions and acted onstage, in film and on television. Among them are published poets, produced playwrights and teachers. Highly skilled, they are the cream of the crop, like the author of Philoctetes himself, the highly educated war veteran who may have been the greatest playwright who ever lived, Sophocles.
Philoctetes tells the story of a dutiful warrior, the greatest of all Greek archers, whose ghastly injuries gained in battle were so agonizing to him and so inconvenient to the military leaders that they abandoned him on the Island of Lemnos. Ten years later, with the Trojan War incredibly still raging, he is sent for because a prophecy has said that without the world’s greatest archer the war cannot be won. That archer is none other than Philoctetes, the banished veteran. Odysseus, the great master of trickery and deceit, orders the young soldier (and son of Achilles) Neoptolemus to get Philoctetes to rejoin them by deceiving him. This is war, after all. And not just any war; it is the Trojan War, the ten-year-long conflict at the heart of so many Greek tales. If the war can be brought to an end at last, and with a Greek victory, that is surely worth a small moral corruption. Or is it?
The actors perform this drama very effectively and in a manner that is direct and without ornament. Richard Chaves’ Philoctetes is a haunting figure. He is a man who has been isolated for so long that his manner is odd, his speech patterns labored from lack of use. His low-pitched voice sounds like it comes from another world, and his gaze is that of a man haunted by the pain of abandonment.
Johnny Meyer is strong as the conflicted Neoptolemus, and Ed Walsh is quite effective as the driven and uncompromising Odysseus. The chorus is very powerful, sitting across the rear of the stage, observing the action and commenting with their own experiences of war.
The staging by Desiree Sanchez is straightforward and uncluttered. The space is a single flat plane that sometimes appears to be quite vast. Some of the most dramatically staged moments are the early scenes before Philoctetes is found. The actors perform in near darkness, lit from the side and half draped in shadow like the paintings of Caravaggio. This is a scene of shadowy morals and plotting after all. When the action shifts to the island of Lemnos, everything is plainly visible, including the state Philoctetes has been living in. Center stage left is a hospital bed that essentially has been Philoctetes’ dwelling for ten years.
The English translation by Aquila Theatre Artistic Director Peter Meineck is a mixed bag; there is great clarity to the text yet some of the speeches and declamations are just plain awkward sounding. But the words of the chorus, rewritten by the actors themselves with their own words derived from their own experiences, hits the point home that, as O’Brien said (along with so many others) the true, eternal horror of war is that it is always the same.