Karl Herlinger as Agamemnon
When Kaipo Schwab, artistic director of The Imua! Theatre Company, was looking around for a unique 10th anniversary piece, he came up with The Greeks, which premiered in London in 1979, and hasnt ever before been performed in its entirety in New York.
A six hour-long play, split in half, done in rep with 40 to 50 actors on an Off-Broadway contract, is something most small companies dont do, so this fit perfectly, says Schwab of the production which just opened at Manhattan Ensemble Theater on Mercer Street.
Imua! was founded by Schwab with friends from Boston University as a place where actors could work and learn all about the theater business. The company is composed of 25 core members-actors, directors, designers - in a strong ethnic mix. Highlight productions include Baum in Gilead in 1997, Santos and Santos in 2000 and Safe in 2003.
Imua means to move forward in Hawaiian, explains Schwab, who was raised in Hawaii, and has a strong background in acting for film and TV. We started to work in a process-oriented way, using year-long rehearsals, beginning with character study and research, then adding text. The result looked a lot like improv because we were so into the characters. Id also worked with New York Theatre Workshops retreats with artists of color, so our company moved into newer works from diverse artists, and in The Greeks we have Latinos, Asians, African-Americans and Whites.
According to Schwab, the play was written in the early 70s by Kenneth Cavander and John Barton - a master teacher of Shakespeare, who created this piece as a way to introduce its classic stories to a modern audience.
He wanted a light, terse version, so he took big plays and condensed them into 30-45 minutes and did them as a series. A director friend of mine told me about this work six years ago. Its been out of print, but I found it online, got a copy, read it, and within a few days I was making plans to do it.
It took a year-and-a-half of weekly text exploration and research of The Greeks, but Schwab and company reached their goal of mounting the play by mid-summer of this year, and bringing home the immediate relevancy of their chosen production.
The plot is made up of ten short plays, something like The Sopranos or Lord of the Rings, and there are three main families, Schwab said. Theres the house of Atreus, with Agamemnon, general of the Greek army. To fight in The Trojan War, he must sacrifice his daughter. He goes and gets corrupted by power. This coincides with the Trojan family of Hecuba and Prian, who become slaves to the Greeks. We follow the story of their children. Then theres the house of Thetas, son of Achiles - how he deals with the Trojan War and how his sons deal with its aftermath.
The overall theme here is Western versus Eastern philosophy, with a strong bent to the contemporary parallel of The Iraq War, complete with soldiers dressed in modern day fatigues.
There is a conscious point made regarding our situation today, said the director. This is an accessible story, not at all removed. We tried to make it as current as possible to appeal to a wider audience. It also deals with peoples search for God, and what is religion, plus themes of sin, punishment and redemption.
The look of the show is that of a demolished city and old amphitheaters, with big columns of broken, crumbling stone. Theres also a bunch of not too Greeky music, combining everything from Bosnian folk songs to Gaelic tunes, for a more international flavor.
After a year and a half, with my vision secure, the only real challenge has been the logistics of working with 40 actors and their schedules, but weve managed it, Schwab says. I hope this production will help people understand what Barton did, and get a different outlook on what Greek plays can be. Theyre great stories, told in a very simple way. I also think theres a collective unconsciousness at work here. The play is a catalyst for discussions about war, religion and family, and because it was written centuries ago, it provides distance and objectivity.