Greek Myth: SVU | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Greek Myth: SVU 

Revisiting the sordid tale of Philomele

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THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE | LIVEWIRE CHICAGO THEATRE

WHEN Through 4/29: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM
WHERE Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis
PRICE $12-$15 INFO 773-412-8089

Even in the wild, wild world of Greco-Roman myth, the tale of Philomele is a doozy. As recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Philomele and her sister, Procne, are Athenian princesses. Procne marries Tereus, a warrior-king from the north, and goes with him to live in "barbaric" Thrace. Several years later, missing her sister and home, Procne sends Tereus to fetch Philomele for a visit--but upon arrival at the Athenian court he's smitten with his sister-in-law and things take a turn for the David Lynch. Mad with lust, Tereus drags Philomele "to a cabin in the woods, remote and hidden away among dark ancient trees." After he's raped her, he cuts out her tongue so she can't tell anyone. But Philomele weaves a tapestry that fingers the offender and gets it to Procne; reunited during a Bacchanalia, they kill Procne's son by Tereus, cook him up in a pie, and feed him to the king. When they reveal what they've done Tereus tries to kill them. But then--as if some unseen narratorial consciousness were saying "Enough!"--they're all transformed into birds, Philomele into a nightingale.

You can see why this one gets left out of everything from children's collections to Mary Zimmerman's famed staging of Ovid's magnum opus. But the story isn't entirely marginal--Keats and T.S. Eliot refer to Philomele, and it plays into Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus: when the bad guys rape Titus's daughter Lavinia, they don't just cut out her tongue--they cut off her hands too. No tapestries for her. Lavinia still manages to communicate how she's been wronged, showing her father a copy of Metamorphoses opened to the Philomele chapter.

Nothing against the clever-clever shenanigans of playwrights like Charles L. Mee, but the Greek and Senecan tragic models remain sturdily communicative all by themselves. Philomele's timeless overlapping themes of male/martial/marital domination and the tyranny of destructive passion don't need to be tricked out to eloquently address both "now" and "always." Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1983 take on them, The Love of the Nightingale, plays up the myth's feminist critique but also suggests that the story refers more to the brutal "affections" of nation versus nation. Still, she never directs the audience in the standard manner of revisionist adaptation. Similarly, by neither updating the piece nor sweating period details overmuch, she lets the observations uttered on the spotlit "stage" of classical Greece--Western Civ's metaphorical island of light surrounded by darkness and chaos--work their existential magic, becoming abstract comments on the ego's navigation of society, nature, and time.

Not that Wertenbaker doesn't tinker with the story. She elides the cannibalism to make the sisters more sympathetic and introduces a metatextual device, a performance of a snippet of Euripides' Hippolytus, that inflames and encourages Tereus's passion for Philomele, essentially inverting the thrust of Hamlet's play within a play. But the collective authorship of myth allows this kind of variation, even to the point of surreal simultaneities. Gods and heroes share multiple, conflicting lineages; sometimes Ovid irons out inconsistencies in the Wikipedia-esque mythic sprawl by bluntly placing transformed characters in tales that precede their transformation and vice versa. Because the symbolic logic of myth anticipates postmodernism, postmodern underlinings and flourishes are unnecessary and distracting--as Wertenbaker's elegant adherence to classical form indicates.

The clunky, long-winded, hopelessly dated convention of the chorus, for example, is perhaps the single biggest stumbling block for contemporary productions of classical works. But its directness can trump its monumentality, producing efficient exposition as well as pointed profundity. Wertenbaker doesn't rationalize or update her chorus but ruthlessly strips its comments down to minimalist epigrams, creating a plainspoken voice of impending doom. It speaks with enigmatic yet lucid authority, whether remarking on the nature of myth ("The oblique image of an unwanted truth, reverberating through time") or coldly laying down the facts: "In due course, Procne had a child, a boy called Itys. Five years passed." Wertenbaker pulls off a structural coup in the chorus's commentary on the rape: instructed to stand guard but ignore the proceedings, they report afterward, "We said nothing. It was better that way." Silencing its traditional reporter doesn't just heighten the convention of offstage violence, it makes the chorus a collaborator in the cover-up, which parallels charges leveled at the media today, from Fox News to Armstrong Williams to Judith Miller.

Glenn Proud's production for LiveWire Chicago Theatre is straightforward too, neither rigidly classical nor self-consciously modern, placing the story in a thoughtful approximate antiquity with Erin Fast's simple costumes and Anders Jacobson's vaguely Attic set. Proud's chorus, who double as Tereus's soldiers, stake out space with powerful simplicity: they not only comment on the action but physically mark the boundaries of the scenes. The actors chart a middle course between excessively colloquial line readings and the portentous declamation common in "faithful" stagings, opting for the stark finality of formalized everyday speech.

It's not a perfect show or a perfect play. Though the production starts strong, it unravels a bit near the end, due partly to the script. Wertenbaker's softening of the sisters' revenge robs the myth of the money shot the charged material practically demands. And though her humanization of Tereus is admirable--he's both a clumsy rube corrupted by Athenian decadence and a victim/monster in the child molester vein, stricken with an inappropriate but ineradicable desire--it makes her conclusion muted and problematic. The strong principals, left a little adrift, falter just when all their work should be paying off, but perhaps as they settle into the roles they'll find the right concluding notes. As Tereus, Asher Hart follows the script's sympathetic lead as far as he can, though he's sufficiently thuggish when required. As Procne, Erin Barlow personifies brittle beauty and unsplendid isolation, though she doesn't quite communicate the fury of a woman twice wronged. As Philomele, Danielle O'Farrell is first the picture of vivacious, life-loving innocence, then an utterly blanched ghost.

Audiences can easily be put off by classical drama, whether by its dustiness or by misbegotten attempts to drag it into the present. The Love of the Nightingale proves that neither need be an issue; it's just a matter of letting the text--or myth--speak for itself.

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