Why stage a play that’s more than 2,500 years old?
Can the struggle of a forgotten Bronze Age warrior possibly say anything to us?
Few of us have ever heard of Philoctetes. We do recognize his war — the Trojan War, when the Greeks besieged Troy for 10 years before it finally fell. We probably don’t know that Odysseus and the Greeks marooned their greatest archer on a desert island when his wound — a snakebit foot — grew infected and smelled so bad it made them ill.
Sophocles wrote a play about him, called Philoctetes, and now Malik B. El-Amin, the ambitious founder of Griot Theatre, has adapted it for the modern stage. “The modern stage” — in Griot’s vision, that means a stage filled with actors who reflect our culture’s diversity.
For The Archer from Malis, Philoctetes and his mentor Hercules are both black men. All the other characters — from the great god Zeus down to a nameless soldier — are women, one of them black (born in Korea), one Iranian-American, one in a wheelchair.
Aside from slight name changes (to feminine endings), this element of Griot’s staging doesn’t much alter the characters, or their story. But it does profoundly alter our sense of the story’s world, and its relation to our own.
When Zeus, as a powerfully handsome woman, calls dapper-suited Hercules at his hi-tech monitoring station, we’re more in our world than the Greeks’. The capricious father of the gods, a distant figure hard for us to imagine (except as a cartoon superhero), suddenly feels as familiar as a woman CEO or presidential candidate. The god’s uneasy relationship with the hero (an illegitimate human son) slips smoothly into the boss-lieutenant model we know well.
When young Neoptolema wheels onstage, hectored by sly Odyssea, we see the youth’s wounded honor physicalized, and we feel the seductiveness of the wily Wanderer’s arguments. Ultimately, this will matter: Philoctetes is often read as a drama of the wounded archer’s inner conflicts, but in The Archer, it’s Neoptolema’s ethical dilemma that takes the spotlight.
El-Malik is to be congratulated for an adaptation that trims and focuses the story, adding to its intensity while cutting away detail we don’t need. The cast, too, earn fierce applause with their work.
Lester Purry uses his immense presence to keep Philoctetes at or near the center of our minds every moment, while weaving the archer’s volcanic, conflicted emotions into a wholly believable human person. Elmira Rahim’s superhuman Zeus, on the other hand, feels immediately accessible and lets us in on every plan — yet we sense the fearsome power she is withholding.
As Odyssea, Leilani Smith crafts a beguiler who’ll try any tactic, from sexy wheedling to a witty joke to barking military orders, yet always leaves herself an out (plausible deniability is her middle name). And Rosemary Brownlow conveys a chorus of ordinary folk in just two characters, an obedient soldier and a would-be clever sea captain.
But the performance that makes this play is Regan Linton as Neoptolema, the young hero-in-training trying to follow in the footsteps of an idealized father (the great Achilles). When we meet her, she already bears a wound — her superiors are coercing her to attempt a most dishonorable act. We see how this hurts and confuses her. And how it enables her to understand and respect the wounded hero the Greeks now want to bring to Troy.
Linton and Purry create duets, as the warriors come to know and trust each other, that are beautiful and sad, for we know what she is doing — and what it will do to her. And I cannot imagine this play without Linton’s skilled use of her chair — darting, whirling, creeping up, falling back — she creates almost a ballet of the thoughts and feelings tearing at her character.
I came to the theatre ready for the familiar experience of seeing a classic well-performed, yet not being moved by it. The Archer from Malis is excellently performed — and it transforms an ancient ethical debate into a vivid, personal experience of the wrenching some people feel between love and duty, while those who succeed in the world do not feel it at all. It’s a text for our times, beautifully made alive.
The Archer from Malis, adapted (from Sophocles’ Philoctetes) and directed by Malik B. El-Amin.
Presented by Griot Theatre, at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
through May 22.
Tickets: (323) 960-7822 or <www.griottheatre.org>