A tale of death, selfishness, and self-sacrifice, Euripides’ 438 BC tragedy Alkestis seems on its surface to be textbook Greek drama. Yet partly because of its ambiguous, tragicomic tone, it remains little known and rarely performed. That tone was a major attraction for Big Dance Theater in adapting the work as Supernatural Wife, a play-within-a play in which modern-day references and technology — video projections, a beer-swigging Herakles, a sample from the movie His Girl Friday — mix with language from Euripides. In a recent conversation with Walker editor Julie Caniglia, Big Dance Theater artistic directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar touch on how they brought a contemporary resonance to a play written nearly 2,500 years ago.
What attracted you to the idea of adapting Alkestis? What relevance do you see it having to our world today?
I got into the play after we read it in Grief Lessons, four plays by Euripides translated by poet Anne Carson. If I were to analyze it from outside—which is not something I really like to do—I’d say it reflects the really impulsive and broken, interrupted nature of the world we live in. Tragedy and comedy exist simultaneously in real life, and I saw all this in Alkestis, and in Euripides in general. This play is hard to direct because of these extreme tonal shifts. It’s like you’re out in your raincoat, then you have to take it off because it’s suddenly hot, and then you have to put on boots because it starts to snow. I wonder if that’s one reason this play is not well known. But that’s the stylistic aspect that attracted me as a director— something we’ve been doing as a company for a long time, playing with these extreme tonal shifts because they seem true to life.
My original attraction was a misunderstanding, a joyful one. I thought of it as a play about a guy who says he’s willing to let his wife die in his place, then has the audacity to say over and over again, “This is a lot tougher for me than it is for you!” That premise for me is hilarious. I thought of the play as a comic critique of the hypocrisy of power. But to return to Annie-B’s analogy, this absurdity is just one kind of weather. The death of Alkestis takes almost half the play. Then in the second half, Herakles arrives. He turns the atmosphere upside down. An anarchic comic strain rides in with him, yet he’s the one who triggers the ambiguous, unforgettable conclusion.
Clearly you were up for a challenge when you chose this play. Since it’s rarely produced, How did you clearly avoid the problems that others have noted?
Euripides is simultaneously involved with different parts of the body, in a sense. He hits you in your head, in your sad spot, in your funny bone, then in your stomach, and finally in your heart. So in order for us to articulate this insane play—and not let the dog walk us, in a sense—we implemented a lot of different styles of theatrical tools. For instance, in one scene, the king is a horse wrangler and so the queen is like a horse. We use video footage of just that, a wrangler and a horse, and the king and queen enact the physical movements going on in that footage. We also incorporated elements of Yiddish theater. This was the most glaring new territory for us as a company.
Where did you find connections between Yiddish theater and Alkestis?
It’s present in the physicality of our performers, which is closer to silent film than anything from contemporary theater. One of the great Yiddish actors, Solomon Mikhoels, did King Lear, and a little bit of his performance from the 1920s is on film—the scene where Cordelia dies, and Lear responds to her death. So when we were dealing with King Admetus’ response to Alkestis’ death, we looked to the physicality of this actor, which had a grandeur to it, something larger than naturalism. I’m not breaking new ground to say that for all its virtues, naturalism can’t encompass all of the dimensions of Greek drama; it wasn’t written to be done that way.
You have to face and encompass the scale of the play or it will make your work look thin.
Theater and performance artists have been exploring many new forms—interactive pieces, site-specific works, digital pieces, and so on. Yet the audience and performer relationship in Supernatural Wife, and most of your work, remains quite traditional, in a way. How do certain conventions fit into your work, which is otherwise considered experimental?
In my mind, we have yet to relinquish that pretty straightforward, and I guess traditional, relationship with the audience: You look in this direction and we’ll do this thing up here and you watch it.
We not only use it; we embrace it. Imagine a huge red curtain that goes up, takes a long time, makes a big “whoosh” sound. There’s a sense of excitement in the audience that this dark box will light up and this event will occur and an hour later it will be over, and the audience and performers will have experienced it together. In particular, we use that big red curtain as a motif. In the same way, we were interested in reminding the audience that this play is an extremely old text that has survived, and the act of reading is a part of it, and this form of theater still exists after 2,500 years.
Big Dance Theater, Supernatural Wife, 2011, commissioned by the Walker Art Center
Photo by Mike Van Sleen