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A CurtainUp Review

The Cure at Troy
Les Gutman

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's first (and only) venture into playwriting, The Cure at Troy, presents a great opportunity to ponder the implications of CurtainUp's recent features on translations and adaptations. (See especially Estelle Gilson's article and James Magruder's interview). Jean Cocteau Repertory has also positioned this production well for its loyal audience, as a counterpoint to the rest of its current season which features playwrights with names like Ibsen and Moliere, among others.

The original version of this story is credited to Homer. Heaney based his play on Sophocles' Philoctetes, and modernized the language, sometimes to good effect. Juxtaposing dialogue and verse, The Cure at Troy has moments of poetic elegance although it also has as many or more rough spots. If the test of a new adaptation is whether it improves accessibility for contemporary audiences, or sheds modern light on an ancient subject, it is not clear this one is an enhancement. Although the publicity for the show makes much of a supposed connection between this story and the situation in Heaney's native Northern Ireland, the nexus is sufficiently subtle that it would evade anyone who hadn't been advised it was there. (To be fair, Heaney says he was not trying to exploit the parallels.)

The play is structured with a female Greek chorus. The chorus opens and closes the play -- on the wrong foot in my view -- with Heaney's poetry. He seems as interested in the notion of poetry's capacity for healing as he is in the story he is attempting to relate. The poetry also becomes a crutch that doesn't serve Heaney particularly well because he frequently falls back on his considerable skills in lyrical description instead of developing his characters and situations dramatically. He also tends to announce emotions when they need to be demonstrated. Perhaps he needs to take a lesson from his fellow Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, who says -- as quoted by Estelle Gilson --  "nobody comes (to the theater)...for anything but emotion".

The story: Philoctetes (Craig Smith) was a Greek soldier, famed for having inherited the bow and arrows of Hercules. After being bitten by a snake while enroute to war with the Trojans he developed a smelly abscess that would not heal. His fellow warriors abandoned him on a deserted island, Lemnos. Ten years later, an oracle predicted that the still-persisting war could only be won if the Greeks could regain the Herculean bow and arrow, still in Philoctetes' possession. Odysseus (Charles Parnell) and Neoptolemus (Tim Deak) return to the island to persuade the rejected Philoctetes to help their cause by supplying his magic bow. The conflict between Odysseus' approach, (gaining the bow and arrows by force and deceit in the name of duty to country), and young Neoptolemus' sense of morality in the name of personal honor, sets the stage for retelling of this parable. 

Despite the updated language, director Robert Hupp has chosen to present The Cure in a hyper-classical style. The demeanor of the actors is exceedingly dramatic. Craig Smith spends much of the play wailing and screaming in pain and anguish. Parnell and Deak also rarely descend from their overly-dramatic plateau. The effect is to distance the action rather than create any sort of meaningful reality. Heaney's script might fare better in a less stylized staging.

The chorus of sailors under Neoptolemus' command in the Sophoclean original now consists of three women. They influence Neoptolemus throughout the play as consciences, as fates, as witches and even as what passes for public opinion. Led by Elise Stone, they are one of the most interesting and effective parts of this production, in spite of my reservations about how Heaney has used them, as noted above.

Robert Klingelhoefer's scenic design, mostly a suggestion of the rocky landscape of the island of Lemnos, is unusual but effective. The volcano effects (sound by Jim Lartin-Drake and lights by Brian Aldous) at the end of the production are also effective and nicely realized.

by Seamus Heaney 
Directed by Robert Hupp 
starring Tim Deak and Craig Smith 
Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery (212) 677-0060 
Opened 11/23/97, in repertory with Hedda Gabler through 2/ 12/98
Reviewed by Les Gutman 12/01/98

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