Following in the footsteps of Euripides, director Peter Sellars has created an event that is dramatic, provocative, and timely by mixing theater and politics and highlighting the evening with an outstanding production of “The Children of Herakles,” which runs at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge through January 25. Euripides wrote the play over 2400 years ago to spotlight the refugee crisis in ancient Athens and to provoke discussion amongst its citizens. Similar to his Athenian predecessor, Sellars’ mission, as the program notes, “is to restore to the theater its original function as the meeting place of art and social engagement.”
Each night, the ancient drama, which marks the play’s American professional premiere, is preceded by a 45 minute discussion, moderated by broadcaster and journalist Christopher Lydon. Lydon interviews a few from a roster of policy makers, refugee aid and relief workers, scholars, legal experts, and human rights activists, along with refugees from around the globe who speak of their experiences of torture and escape, and keeps the dialogue humming as he synthesizes connections between art and politics.
Additionally, there are photographs of refugees prominently displayed throughout the theater, essays in the program, and one of several films that are screened after each evening performance. During a much needed post-performance, 30 minute break, a mini-dinner is available with food selections from global hot spots.
But the play, running for 110 minutes, is the focal point of the evening; and what was relevant when Euripides wrote the drama is as timely as today’s headlines, all of which is supported by a contemporary setting and translation.
The story tells about the the plight of Herakles’ widow and children, who flee their homeland after the hero’s death. After wandering the world in search of a safe haven, they find asylum in Athens. But the Athenian king’s decision to allow them refugee status sparks intense and, at times, violent debate, eerily mirroring global events in the modern world.
Refugee children now living in the Boston area sit onstage as silent witnesses, while the audience is engaged as the citizens of Athens. The professional cast is impressive, especially Jan Triska’s fierce and heart breaking portrayal of Iolaus, a friend of Herakles; and Julyana Soelistyo, who creates two fully realized characters -- Macaria, the young, idealistic daughter of Herakles and Alcmene, his aged, revenge-seeking, mother -- in an astounding piece of acting that had me checking, and then rechecking, my program to see if it was the same actor in both roles.
By providing the audience with a well thought out immersion into the refugee situation, the evening draws a visceral link between this century’s current events with those of ancient Athens. Kudos to Sellars for providing a multi-experiential encounter.