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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Rites and Scarifies: A New Play by Jennifer Mickelson

Or: Bring up the Bodies


War hasn’t changed all that much since the times of the Euripides. The communications have gotten better and the methods of dispatch less personal but the gut-roiling fear that make up a battle is as much the same at Marathon as in Bagdad. The galling grief of those left behind, who lose their loved ones to combat, has changed even less. We make fun of greek tragedy today for all the tearing of hair and beating of breasts but we forget that these lamentations so charged with woe that they could bring whole cities to tears. Jennifer Mickelson marries that same tradition of blasting Athenian tragedy with the doubts and insecurities of the modern world to make a play that is intelligent, riveting, and sometimes shocking in its brutality.


Our story takes place in an collision of time: the greek city states still maintain their old alliances, their old grievances, their old gods, but have the of technology and delicate states craft our our times to contend with. The citizens of Argos are grieving; after a overambitious and utterly routed attack on the city of Thebes, five of their most beloved captains have been killed and the bodies mutilated, against the ancient customs and the will of the gods. With the army too weak to mount an extraction mission, the mothers, daughters and wives of the slain soldiers seek out Athenian war correspondent Aithra (Laura Jones Macknin) to help bring the mighty nation of Athens to assist them. Though once hugely influential, Aithra claims to have lost her political clout, save for the fact that her son Theseus (Joshua Volkers) is the newly elected king of Athens. Gathering in the temple of Demeter, seeking the goddesses help, the women and the Argive king Adrastos (Jon Penick) plead with Aithra, and through her Theseus, to set the wrong to their dead aright. But even if Aithra can convince her son to plunge his nation into war, and even if he can recover the bodies, then the sufferings of the Argive women are just beginning.


Adapting Euripides’s The Suppliants , a work confessed by director Evan Jackson to be unproduceable (he doesn’t help matters with his passion for projections of a serenely creepy Demeter, though he does admirably well in setting more human responses of panic and violence) may not be the best idea on paper. The hub of the play focuses on a belief system alien or at least antiquated to our modern sensibilities. What’s the point of risking all for these boys if nothing can harm them further? But Rites and Sacrifices focuses more on the intricacies of living than the finality of the dead. It breathes life into the original play’s dialogs about the reach of power in a ruler, the necessity or risks of foreign intervention, how one should deal with the unthinkable future. Its also very funny, with the legendary king arguing with his aides over the lyricism of war proclamations, bickering with his mother about her smoking habit, and bemoaning the sometimes ridiculous trappings of Athenian democracy.


Mickelson also proves that those prayers you skipped over in middle school english actually do have an intensity that echoes down the long centuries: her character’s many supplications to the Gods are in fact more moving than many more traditional productions of the greeks. By melding timeless questions, pulsing emotion, and the odd quirk of modern life Mickelson has created a script that, like Shakespeare and Wilde is almost actor proof.


Alas, but for that ‘almost’. The performance of these lines still leaves something to be desired. The energy is there, crackling away in each actor and ready to burst out, but the cast, at least in the first forty five minutes, has a tendency to smooth out their faces and strap their speeches to a serious monotone, mistaking reserve for nuance and becoming creatures of wood when they ought to explode as spirits of fire. Happily, as the play goes on, they stop paddling and dive through the emotional turmoil like penguins. Jones Macknin, short tempered and distant and first turns her reporters objectivity into a shield to hide her very real fears that her son will be just as scarred by the hand of war as she has been. Volkers is the very picture of the curt and dignified statesman but lowers his public persona to us in order to show Theseus’s trepidation and fear, a young leader not yet in command of his nation. Penick’s Adrastos maintains his woodenness throughout but makes it an appropriate woodenness, befitting a man shocked to his core, who must strangle his pride and beg the Gods for deliverance. Best of all are the four Argive Women, who after a beginning of muddled anxiety and tenderfoot persuasive tactics, each find and run the course of a different road of bereavement: Iphis (Jean Walker) who curses the Gods for the destruction of her beloved children, Eudocia (Allison Asher) dedicating her life to her son’s memories, promising to make their passage to the house of death as gentle as can be, rage filled Thais (Alison Dornheggen) burning with the desire to make the Thebans pay for her fathers death, and red-eyed Evadne (Caty Gordon), trembling and half-mad with anguish, who longs to pull herself upon her husband’s pyre, to have their “bones tumble together” in a second, eternal wedding night.


I trust that as the show’s run continues the ensemble will find their footing and their comfort with this at once naturalist and heightened text, that their performances will burn with a rolling fire throughout rather than flashing like lighting in the middle of a invocation or lament. I hope too that Mickelsons script will have a long and varied legacy, recognized and applauded for reviving a calcified form of theater and addressing old questions to new circumstances. If you like the Greeks come see the play. If you like modern political dramas, come see this play. And if you wish to know, without experiencing, how tragedy national and personal can forge a soul to iron or overthrow a noble mind, please do come see this play, for its look at the price of war is accurate and wrenching in any time.

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