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Philoctetes was part of the Greek army assembled by Odysseus. Somehow, in the course of the sea journey to fight the Trojan War he was wounded. Accounts vary. Some have him bitten by a snake and, when his wound festered and turned putrid, left by his shipmates on an island with Heracles' bow and arrows to keep him company. There he remained alone for ten years, alone and with the wound never healing. As the Trojan War waned, King Priam's son revealed under torture that the Greeks could only win the war with Heracles' bow and arrows and so Odysseus returned to the island to retrieve Philoctetes and his armory — and to try and convince him to suffer further for his country.
In the original version, Philoctetes goes with Odysseus, his wound is healed, he slays many Trojans, and he returns to Italy triumphant. In Jesurun's version, Philoctetes is a broken man, but a brutal one, unwilling to suffer for ideals. He knows the Greeks need him and he enjoys toying with them and punishing them for their cruel treatment of him. And that's as much of the story as we ever get.
This Philoktetes is more an exercise in lush visual projections and lyrical, though occasionally startling, language than it is in reviving ancient Greek myths. Philoktetes, Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Odysseus' companion, have a series of short scenes in which they take turns trying to gain verbal dominance. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. Their struggle highlights the essential personality traits of each character: Philoctetes is caustic and brooding, Odysseus desperate but unwilling to appear so, Neoptolemus simply impatient and ready to get back to the fighting.
The play could easily be a treatise on the nature of suffering and pain or an analogy to the war in Iraq and our collective unwillingness to fight in it; or it could simply be the story of a lonely and disfigured man. Here it is none of the above. The centerpiece of the production is Jesurun's strangely beautiful language. Short, terse, blended with blunt vernacular, the innate poetry is complemented by a series of lush visual projections. Soho Rep's tiny stage is graced by two flat panels which bear the mirrored projections, and almost nothing else. The rest of the scenery consists of three chairs.
It's an oddly intoxicating show. While there is almost nothing in the way of plot, or character development, and with only a few traces of the original Greek myth left to guide us (principally in the characters' names), the aural and visual stimulation offset the relative barrenness of the story line. Louis Cancelmi as Philoktetes is the moral center (or, perhaps, the amoral center) of the play. He wears his bitterness like a crown, almost as a badge of honor. Odysseus and Neoptolemus batter themselves against him, but Philoktetes' suffering has ruined him as a human being and he knows it. Cancelmi's stoic performance highlights his (now self-imposed) isolation from the rest of humanity.
Jesurun's direction and unique design keep the audience's attention focusedon the language and the projections. That's exactly as it should be in this u nique production, of a story that's very rarely told.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
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