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New Youth for Those Old Greeks

UC Irvine Stages A Rare Performance of the Ancient Plays

February 16, 2001|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you are a theater lover who relies on Orange County's professional stages for your entire dramatic diet, the Greeks are pretty much Greek to you.

South Coast Repertory, the county's leading company, has produced one ancient Athenian play in 37 years.

The Laguna Playhouse has been staging shows since 1922 and still hasn't gotten around to the Greeks.

The leaders of the much younger Grove Theater Center see the Greeks, who invented theater as it is known in Western civilization, as too big a risk until the company is on firmer financial footing.

And so in Orange County the ancients are left to the young. Virtually all stagings of the four great Greek playwrights--Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes--are produced here by college and university drama departments and played by student actors.

Keeping it young and contemporary is exactly the way to go, says Bryan L. Doerries, the 24-year-old translator, adapter and director of "Dionysus 2001," a sequence of four plays by Sophocles now running at UC Irvine's intimate Studio Theatre.

Doerries says his goal for the project, which he hopes to take on the road after it earns him his master's degree in directing, is to "search for where Dionysus is in contemporary culture." Dionysus is the god of intoxication and ecstasy who represents the unleashing of humankind's most primal drives and impulses.

He is positive that in 2001 the true spirit of Dionysus would look ridiculous clad in the robes of ancient Greece. He thinks a literal and unedited translation would render the plays hopelessly dated and dull, as would elevated acting cadences that strive to make the language sound "classical." His translation is earthy, stripped-down and colloquial, and his staging is an attempt to set the plays in a timeless moment, with some modern cultural signposts for today's audiences.

"The most important thing is to tell the story and cut references that will mislead the audience into thinking they have to think of the mythological basis," says Doerries, who majored in classics at Kenyon College in Ohio. "What's the point of loading it down with references that people aren't going to understand?"

In the Dionysian world Doerries has created, four plays--the tragedies "Ajax," "Antigone" and "The Women of Trachis" and the bawdy, scatological, buffoonish, tension-relieving nightcap, "The Bloodhounds"--average 40 minutes each, perhaps half as long as a complete translation.

Disrobed

Nobody wears robes. In "Ajax," the opening play, the haughty Greek generals Agamemnon and Menelaus wear combat boots and fatigues and speak with southern drawls in what seems to be an imitation of Robert Duvall playing the crazed, swaggering commander in "Apocalypse Now." Decked out in platform boots, tight pants, hair glitter and an iridescent vest, the goddess Athena, who torments poor Ajax and brings on the mighty warrior's demise, looks like Gwen Stefani's next fashion statement. In "The Women of Trachis," a messenger arrives to a disco beat and camps through his lines while flaunting flamboyantly gay mannerisms.

But at certain crucial emotional moments, Doerries reaches all the way back in time and has his actors speak their lines in the original Greek. He says he wanted to create an element of strangeness and mystery while relying on the actors to convey their characters' pain and outrage through inflection and gesture alone.

The production features original music and modern, gymnastic choreography that are not mere adornments but integral to the theatricality, mood and meaning of the plays. The two dancers look like twin demonic spirits. Actor-composer Chris Lancaster bows, bangs and hoists his cello while wearing makeup and wild hair that call Marilyn Manson to mind. The music includes industrial hammering suitable for a rave and poignant folk-rock ballads that the heroes sing at their moments of tragic recognition.

"There are moments when speaking can no longer support the weight of the emotion, so the actors break out in song," Doerries said. The sound design includes speakers hidden below the stage to create the low, rumbling, more-felt-than-heard vibrations of a rave.

"Dionysus is always changing," Doerries said. "He used to be in rock 'n' roll; now he's in the rave culture. I've seen probably hundreds of just horrible productions of the Greeks that are difficult to sit through" because they treat the ancients like "museum pieces."

Doerries has avoided that trap, judging from the audience's rapt involvement on opening night and its palpable relief at the naughty closing comedy, which followed the ancient Greek tradition of concluding a day of tragedy with a ribald "satyr play."

He hopes to keep his cast together and take "Dionysus 2001" on the road in America and overseas, but no bookings are firm.

"I find that many [producers] do believe that the Greeks are becoming hot again and it is going to be a commercially viable form. But they haven't figured out a way to open the door and make that happen."

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