Alcestis: Theater Review

Ed Krieger, Boston Court
Kalean Ung and Jeremy Shranko
Ancient Greek hybrid of tragedy and comedy finds compatible interpretation in a company-focused contemporary realization.

A modern-minded interpretation of classic Greek material comes to Pasadena.

King Admetus (Jeremy Shranko), one of the original crew of Argonauts, has been granted a reprieve from his fated early death by the errant god Apollo (Lorne Green), who in temporary exile from Mount Olympus had found incognito sanctuary in his court. As ever, there’s a catch: Someone must agree to die in his place, and after his aged parents refuse, his uxorious wife Alcestis (Kalean Ung) volunteers to sacrifice herself for his sake. In this world premiere rendition of the classic play by Nancy Keystone’s Critical Mass Performance Group at The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, a collective enterprise of actors, playwright and director mash up a kaleidoscope of translations and texts to find immediacy and resonance in what could otherwise be regarded as an ancient myth of dubious relevance to contemporary life.

Developed over the past three years, including a workshop performance of a more embryonic version at the Getty Villa, the company has clearly steeped itself in the lore of the tale, and the distinctive stage movement of the actors bespeaks a collaborative creativity in finding the form and content of the piece under Keystone’s tutelage. At every point, while inspiration may vary, there is never the least doubt that this mounting reflects the unique character of the Critical Mass participants and their remarkable synchronicity of purpose and effect.

Indeed, the opening half of the show often manages to capture in fresh cadences and accessible references essences suggested by the original in concrete and relatable terms, perhaps best conveyed when the troupe intones a pair of verbal fugues on the quotidian significances of life and on the contemplation of possible demises, litanies of mortality that forthrightly chill the spine with their accretion of recognizable detail.

However, the Euripides original notoriously poses special difficulties of tone, as its tragic core detours upon the arrival of buddy Herakles, or Hercules (Nick Santoro), en route to yet another of his labors. Clad in outlandish football shoulder pads, the buffoonish Herakles cannot fathom why Admetus is treating him so strangely, and Admetus’ antiquated sense of hospitality causes him, in what would become among the oldest of comic gambits, to withhold the information of his wife’s death and funeral from him, causing no end of escalating misunderstandings. Some of this comedy can be pointed or otherwise cleverly conceived (a manic wake is particularly inventive), but its integration into the main theme of sacrifice and selfishness remains problematic.

Nevertheless, the group’s singularity of purpose is never in doubt in its original take on an enduring conundrum of a play that has served as a source for works as diverse as the early operas by Gluck and later Handel, and more recent variations by Thornton Wilder and T.S. Eliot (The Cocktail Party).

Venue: The Theatre @ Boston Court, Pasadena (runs through July 28)
Cast: Kalean Ung, Jeremy Shranko, Nick Santoro, Ray Ford, Lorne Green, Valerie Spencer, Danielle Jones, Russell Edge
Playwright: Nancy Keystone, adapted from translations of Euripides by Richmond Lattimore, Ted Hughes, James Baldwin, Anne Carson and William Arrowsmith, with additional passages taken from David Byrne, Peter Handke, Plato, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Xavier Villaurrutia and Marion Winik
Director & set designer: Keystone
Lighting designer: Adam Frank
Music & sound designer: Randall Tico
Costume designer: Sarah Brown
Presented by Critical Mass Performance Group and The Theatre @ Boston Court