Shakespeare Theatre Fails to Charge Up Euripides Oddity

The Shakespeare Theatre has finally done it. The mega-genius, bedrock of D.C.’s thespian community has produced a show that isn’t all that compelling. “Ion,” an overlooked oddity written by Euripides, lacks the dynamic intensity normally expected in a classic Greek tragedy, and in a Shakespeare Theatre production.

In fact, “Ion” is dubbed “the Greek tragedy with a happy ending.” Is this a red flag? Maybe Greek tragedies should stay tragedies.

Infamous for satirizing heroes of Greek mythology and surprising audiences with untraditional characters, Euripides wasn’t exactly a favorite at the annual Dionysian competition (ancient Greeks’ equivalent to the Oscars). To be fair, the playwright can be credited with innovation for creating characters that wandered out of their mythic boxes. “Ion,” however, at least glimpsed from this production, may be an example of thinking too far outside the box.

In a nutshell, the play tries too hard, but never quite takes off. Just as a mediocre performer attempts to seduce an audience with exceptional backup talent, this obscure script is upstaged and dwarfed by its surroundings — majestic scenery, inventive props and tricks, and a multi-tiered stage inside the mammoth Sidney Harman Hall.

The play’s beginning starts strong with Hermes (played by the talented and nimble Aubrey Deeker), the brother and messenger of Zeus, who sets the scene at the Delphi temple. He makes a surprise entrance from the ceiling on a long train of red fabric and immediately paints a poignant picture of how Creusa, the daughter of the king of Athens, was raped in a cave on the Acropolis by the god Apollo, in a decidedly ungodly act.

Hiding her pregnancy from her family, Creusa returned to the cave to give birth to a boy and abandons him there. The boy, Ion, is later brought to Delphi by Hermes, as directed by Apollo, where he becomes a temple servant, unaware of his parentage.

What could have been a long and windy speech comes alive with the help of brilliant puppeteers who depict the unlikely couple’s actions. But somehow this juicy start morphs into an unraveling of events that gets stuck somewhere between excitement and hysteria.

Director Ethan McSweeny, who directed a gripping version of “The Persians” at the Shakespeare Theatre in 2006, keeps “Ion” at one speed without much variation. He attempts to shake things up by putting a modern-day twist on the plot, but it isn’t enough. It also doesn’t help that David Lan’s adaptation of the script is 90 minutes with no intermission. There are no scene or set changes, and though much of the acting is intense, it lacks nuance.

Creusa ends up returning to Delphi with her husband, Xuthus, to look to the oracle for an answer to their inability to conceive. It’s certainly an intriguing plot build-up. But Creusa, played by Lisa Harrow, hurls her lines at a fevered pitch, while her “Greek chorus” of girls who accompany her have been made into clichéd tacky American tourists. Xuthus, meanwhile, played by Sam Tsoutsouvas, comes off as an ineffective nuisance.

Ion is given more genuineness by actor Keith Eric Chappelle, but even Chappelle is distracting in his own right given his uncanny physical likeness to President Barack Obama (he also is the only African American, even-keeled, amongst a gaggle of confused citizens).

To give due credit, 2,500 years ago, Euripides created remarkably modern themes in “Ion” of familial jealousy and abandonment. Combined with his attempt at ironic humor in the formal structure of traditional Attic tragedy, “Ion” does show a sensibility that was before his time.

“Ion” was also written during a period when Athens had endured more than a decade of bruising war with the rival Spartans, and Athenians had reason to believe that Apollo was fighting for the other side, as the oracle had promised the Spartans victory. Making Apollo a selfish and irresponsible god, in turn, made Euripides a political columnist of sorts. He also risked giving female characters strength and slave characters intelligence, which was previously unknown to Greek audiences.

There’s no denying the genius of Euripides. After all, scribbling away under a hot Athenian sun producing play after play (historians think he did about 95) must not have been easy. Nor was it easy to strip away the façade of Greece’s revered gods. But at the end of the day, given that “Ion” seems more effort than masterpiece, one must wonder if the emperor (Apollo in this case) has any clothes on — and if the Shakespeare Theatre dressed down its otherwise stellar reputation with this uncharged production.

About the Author

Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.