Loosening the Bow

Flawed as the gods, the Rep’s Trojan War drama is also as intermittently stunning.

Nabokov called translation “profanation of the dead,” but I’ll bet Sophocles would like Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s vital update of his Philoctetes as directed by radical classic-reviver Tina Landau. Though not on a par with Heaney’s bestseller Beowulf (which inspired the movie), The Cure at Troy does reanimate Sophocles with lightning strikes of insight and two-fisted conversational verse.

The hero is stranded in a cave on a volcanic desert island, rendered on the Rep stage by Blythe Quinlan with an austere lunar grandeur and epic grit worthy of her old boss, design titan Ming Cho Lee. The Greek commander Odysseus dumped Philoctetes there en route to the Trojan War because of his smelly foot wound.

In the staid old Thomas Francklin translation, the wound is abstract. When the Chorus wants to take Philoctetes back to the war, they’re warned, “When you shall feel his dreadful malady/Oppress you sore you will repent it.” Heaney makes the problem pungently clear: “Take care that you aren’t going to change your tune/When he’s stinking up the boat, and your stomach’s turning.”

Philoctetes (Boris McGiver, a virtuoso at raving) raves in pain from his stinky injury and from the agony of 10 years’ solitary confinement on the island. Then he passes out, and Francklin’s Chorus puts you to sleep with:

Sleep, thou patron of mankind

Great physician of the mind,

Who dost nor pain nor sorrow know,

Sweetest balm of every woe.

Compare the eye-opening poetic punch that made Seamus famous:

Sleep is the god-sent cure

Deep-reaching, painless, sure.

Its touch is certain.

The light of paradise

Creeps into sleepers’ eyes

As through a curtain.

Heaney’s verse and clangy, slangy prose passages bring characters to life. Take the opening scene, stunningly staged by Landau. Odysseus (Rep regular Hans Altwies) and young soldier Neoptolemus (newcomer Seth Numrich) land on the island to get Philoctetes’ magic bow that “never misses and always kills”—the secret weapon to win the war. It’s pitch black; the men descend a metal ramp from the unseen ship and explore the scary moonscape with pinpoint flashlights. When the lights come up on the scene, it packs the impact of revelation.

If Odysseus tried to steal the bow, the enraged Philoctetes would put an inerrant arrow in his eye. So Odysseus tells Neoptolemus to con Philoctetes out of the bow: “Give deceit and me a little portion/of one short day, and for thy future life/be called the holiest, worthiest, best of men.” Heaney blows the library dust off the line: “Do it my way, this once. All right, you’ll be ashamed, but that won’t last. And once you’re over it, you’ll have the whole rest of your life to be good and true and incorruptible.”

Altwies skillfully conveys Odysseus’ slippery trickery and insolence of office. Numrich reminds me of a Seattle actor whose earnest, youthful innocence onstage caused him to be snatched up by Hollywood: Kyle MacLachlan. He makes you believe in the play’s central drama—Neoptolemus’s struggle between patriotic/religious duty and personal duty to Philoctetes, whom he befriends while attempting to con.

The whole show could be seen as an existential sci-fi film. Certainly its exhilarating high points—the opening, and the deus ex machina scene in which Hercules pulls rank on the hero and tells him to quit raving and get his insubordinate butt to Troy—are cinematic in the extreme. Scott Zielinski’s design for the Hercules scene, starring a blazing bank of scarlet lights inexorably ascending from the underworld to the heavens, is to rave for. It’s a superb interpretation of Heaney’s lines about the unbearably brilliant light cast on human events by immortals. Anita Yavich’s cool costumes have a Dune-ish sci-fi feel, with quintuply buckled boots and double-buckled sashes.

The Chorus movingly utters Hercules’ ultimatum, but they are the play’s most problematic aspect. The fine pipes of Guy Adkins, Jon Michael Hill, and Ben Gonio speak and sing the lines in imposing unison and gorgeous harmony, and Josh Schmidt’s music and sound design are intermittently pretty—but often pretty in a bad-show-tunes way, threatening to trivialize tragedy. The Chorus poses and gestures in response to Heaney’s stage direction, “like seabirds stretching and unstiffening,” but this is more evocative as written. In the show, their modern dance–ish motions sometimes reminded me of the ladies in The Music Man posing as “two Grecian urns.” On the page, it’s poetry; onstage, it’s a pose.

The Cure at Troy has other problems. Between the drama’s high points are static low points that outnumber them. And the Chorus’s lines, where Heaney breaks most free of the original, lapse into sentimentality, especially in the play’s most celebrated line, “Once in a lifetime/the longed-for tidal wave/of justice can rise up./And hope and history rhyme.” It begs to be applied to modern political situations, and has been, cheapening Sophocles’ more evenhanded tragic vision.

Garry Wills busted Heaney heavily for his “black-and-white approach” that turns “tragedy into propaganda.” Theater types, of course, eat up leftist propaganda and cheap contemporary allegories, and clamor for more. But Heaney is smart enough to be defensive on this score. “That at least is choral stuff,” he told the Telegraph. “I never would have allowed myself that in propria persona. It’s a chorus speaking so you have to have that class of rhetoric and uplift and so on.”

No, you don’t. Fortunately, his play and this flawed but valuable production do have much of what you do need: bravura poetry and images that pitilessly inscribe themselves on your retina. Philoctetes’ dread that the victims of his bow will rise against him is worthy of Hitchcock at his least uplifting:

The birds and brutes

I slaughtered with the bow, they’re closing in.

I can see their beaks and muzzles crowding up

Both ends of the cave. They’ll pick me clean.

My life for theirs, eyes and tooth and claw.

Now, that’s what I call a tragic vision!