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CurtainUp Guest Review Les Danaïdes

by David Lipfert

The centerpiece for this year's Lincoln Center Festival is the visually impressive Les Danaïdes in a production that has toured Europe and is now shown in New York for the first time. The outdoor performance on a specially constructed stage in Damrosch Park along side the Met begins late enough for the lighting effects to be fully appreciated. An added plus for the outdoor venue is that it is one of the cooler places in the city.

Silviu Purcarete has created Les Danaïdes "from the extant fragments of Aeschylus's "The Suppliant Maidens"-- reputed to be the first surviving Western play-- with additional dialogue based on his other plays. This is Mr. Purcarete's first production to be seen in America, and he joins other noteworthy Romanian directors Liviu Ciulei and Andrei Serban to propose a theatre of the senses rather than of the emotions and the mind.

Attired in white turn-of-century outfits that would not be out of place at a spa, six gods are seated at illuminated tables on either side of the main playing area. Sipping nectar and drolly commenting on the mortals within their purview while remaining uninvolved, they remain present throughout the evening. Zeus calmly arranges and rearranges dominos while the others float ship models.

Fifty Danaïdes dressed as Muslim women dark blue hejabs with prominent eyes painted and carrying white suitcases rush in. Their father Danaos emerges from a compact white trunk to reassure them. In a provocative casting choice, actress Coca Bloos-topless with baggy white pants-plays up the submissive side of the women's protector, albeit in a suitably deep voice.

The Danaïdes have arrived in Argos from Egypt to ask for refuge from the fifty sons of Egyptus who wish to take them as their wives, by force if necessary. Argive King Pelasgos promises only that he will consult his people and return with the results of their vote. In heavy irony, the Greek king hobbles about on two crutches while declaring "I am Pelasgos, supreme ruler of this country. I am the master of everything." Danaos argues that Zeus favors those who shelter refugees and combats those who do not. The women add a second point: due to their descent from the Greek maiden Io argue they really are relatives. A grotesque excursus shows Io, turned into a cow by the jealous Hera, as a very pregnant following her encounter with Zeus following her travels through the eastern Mediterranean. Supine on a rolling table, attendants unzip her belly to reveal a glowing, bloody cow head.

The Danaïdes receive the news that the Argives have accepted their suit only moments before the men arrive. Fifty bare-chested men with shaved heads and dressed in flowing red pants rush in. They clearly do not intend to let the women elude them without a fight. The women make an enclosure using their white suitcases, but the men easily break through. The will of the gods seems to allow the men their desires, and the women must submit. After previously shedding their blue outer garments, the women prepare themselves for the dreaded encounter by arming themselves. The men come to them under their white tent-like shrouds. Each woman kills her spouse, and in mass gratuitous necrophilia, they mount the corpses of their husbands.

One of the daughters, Hypermnestra, has not followed her sisters' design and allows her husband, Lynkaeus, to survive. He single-handedly fulfills the gods' revenge on the murderous women by killing them. Hypermnestra dreams she is nude while surrounded by 50 satyrs, each with satyr-sized equipment. Defenseless and frightened, she becomes the object of their pleasure en masse. Poseidon rescues her but does not pass up the opportunity to enjoy her. The gods celebrate with a stylized waltz.

Mr. Purcarete has made a great evening of theatrical spectacle, but in this production he acts more like a theatrical choreographer rather than a director of actors. There is no character development but in compensation there are many successful visual effects. Masses of identically-dressed performers reciting the chorus lines in unison make a cumulative impression. Fifty torches waved aloft generate enough heat to be felt in the nearer rows. Strategically arranged suitcases fall just like Zeus's dominos simultaneously with the 49 women falling in a row.

All of this goes counter to the nature and function of Greek tragedy: its purpose was to illuminate moral truths for the public. Here Mr. Purcarete has drained any such content in favor of often cheap gimicks and flippant fatalism. He uses a series of devices rather than develop dramatically meaningful elements. The program notes allude to the contemporary quality of Les Danaïdes with its talk of refugees and foreigners, but this is merely trendy overlay.

Performances have been heavily sold, and the audience reacted enthusiastically in contrast to the mixed critical opinion that has appeared to date. Performance last about an hour and three quarters and is performed without intermission. The production is in French with English supertitles.

Directed and adapted by Silviu Purcarete from Aeschylus "The Suppliant Maidens"
Starring Coca Bloos, Mariana Buruiana, Micaela Caracas, Mihai Dinvale,
Jean-Jacques Dulon, Victor Rebengiuc, Alexandru Repan
U.S. premiere for French language production with English supertitles
Damrosh Park, Lincoln Center
Broadway at 62nd Street
(212) 721-6500
From: 7/8/97-7/20/97 at 9 P.M..

©right July 1997, David Lipfert, CurtainUp.

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