Produced by Waterwell Productions, directed by Tom Ridgely and choreographed by Kate Mehan and Lynn Peterson, The Persians opened May 26 at UNDER St. Marks and played to sold-out audiences through June 16. The Aeschylus-inspired work re-opens at The Perry Street Theatre, 31 Perry Street in Greenwich Village, July 13.
"The Persians…a comedy about war with five songs is based on Aeschylus' text, the oldest known in Western civilization," according to Waterwell. "The tale of the downfall of the mighty kingdom of Persia after King Xerxes leads a misguided attack against The Greeks is retold with a modern, comedic and relevant series of sketches and production numbers written and created by Waterwell ensemble members Hanna Cheek, Rodney Gardiner, Arian Moayed and Tom Ridgely."
The piece has original music and arrangements by Lauren Cregor, and additional material by Waterwell member Nicole Parker (of "MADtv").
The piece "was adapted through two months of improvisation, research, movement and a lot of energy," director Ridgely told Playbill.com. "During wartime, Waterwell wanted to bring excitement and laughter back to the theatre by simply retelling this ancient and prescient story by Aeschylus, which eerily parallels the state of the world today. But without getting too heady, we say, 'Let us entertain you!'"
Among moments in the show, co-creator Arian Moayed (Homebody/Kabul at BAM and Steppenwolf Theatre), who is Persian, sings songs in Farsi and helps theatregoers learn Farsi insults. The Persians is the oldest play that's survived," Ridgely added. "It's usually lumped with the other tragedies, and it's certainly dark, but Aeschylus wrote it before Aristotle came along and came up with tragedy and comedy so it really doesn't fit well into either one. It's more of a history and from a dramatic point of view there isn't much action: The Elders and the Queen have been left at home while the Queen's son goes off to conquer Greece. They're starting to worry because they haven't heard any news, and what's more the Queen has just had a very disturbing dream. A Messenger enters with word of a disastrous defeat and he describes it in gory (and lengthy) detail. The Queen summons her dead husband, the former King, who offers little help, and he disappears shortly before the Queen's son returns in shame. They all feel sorry for themselves. End of play."
He continued, "We were attracted to the play for two reasons. One, the opportunity for audiences to commune with literally the oldest characters and theatrical ideas in existence; and two, the contemporary parallels we saw in the story of a King (and son of a King) who over-committed his country to an unnecessary and poorly-executed military campaign that ended badly. Our challenge was that Aeschylus' version is a bit of a snooze fest. So we knew the only way anyone could get anything out of this play (and there's plenty to be had) was if they had a blast watching it. So we really tried to put on a show: there are a lot of laughs, a lot of great songs, a lot of dancing and all of it woven into this very dark, violent story."
How does the show represent what Waterwell does?
"What we did, and what we try to do whenever we approach an older text, is to approach it the way a cubist painter might approach his subject," Ridgely explained. "We break the play down into its units of action and try find the most effective (and entertaining) ways of presenting each section. So what an audience will see when they come is The Persians from many different perspectives. Part of it lives in a Charlie Chaplin world, a big part of it lives in some kind of Isaac Hayes/Martin Van Peebles world, and other parts of it live in worlds whose rules we made up in rehearsal. The result is fragmented to be sure, but it allows us to go anywhere and we do. The tonal shifts between worlds are often drastic and sudden. From light to dark, hilarious to ominous, there are a lot of ups and downs which hopefully make for a pretty intense experience for the audience, on both ends of the spectrum. It certainly does for the actors!"
Designers are Elizabeth Payne (costume) and Sabrina Braswell (lighting).
Waterwell was founded in 2001 and has produced more than 10 productions. The company debuted in New York in 2002 with performances of Lost in Yemen, or The Bizarre Bazaar at Collective: Unconscious. An adaptation of Fuenteovejuna followed in 2003 at the Duplex Cabaret Theater along with another original piece Stuck at the Peoples Improv Theater and the double-bill Chill & Serve at the Ground Floor Theatre. In 2004, after touring Chill & Serve around the tri-state area, Waterwell premiered Sweetness & Light at Altered Stages.
The Persians performance schedule is Wednesday-Saturday at 8 PM. For tickets or more information, visit www.smarttix.com or www.waterwell.org.