One day a gifted auteur will come along and meet the challenge of Sophocles’ hard-nosed brilliance in “Philoctetes,” which has never been among the most popular of his seven extant tragedies. But until that time we’ll have to content ourselves with adaptations that try to make the work more accessible to contemporary audiences.
Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy” is perhaps the most successful reworking of the play for the simple reason that it treats the politics as inseparable from the poetry. “The Heal,” writer-director Aaron Posner’s new version of “Philoctetes,” which opened on Wednesday at the Getty Villa, willingly sacrifices lyricism for something, well, let’s just say springier.
The 14th annual outdoor theater production in the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater (a collaboration with Round House Theatre) seems designed expressly for distracted 21st century theatergoers. This is more of a modern theatrical illustration — a caricature done with care by an author who has had his way with Chekhov and Shakespeare — than either a completely original offering or a brazen deconstruction.
The impulse to rewrite “Philoctetes” is understandable. It’s a strange tale about a man who was abandoned on a desert island by his comrades. En route to the Trojan War, Philoctetes had the misfortune of stepping on unmarked sacred ground and was punished for his unwitting transgression with a snakebite that left his foot ulcerated and fetid.
The wound was so ghastly and the shrieks of agony it engendered so harrowing that the Greeks decided it would be better to leave Philoctetes behind. Alone and aggrieved, his survival wholly dependent on the unerring magic bow that Heracles bequeathed to him for lighting his funeral pyre, Philoctetes suffers not only from the physical wound that mysteriously won’t heal but also from the psychological mutilation of betrayal.
Enter Odysseus, who has brought to the island Neoptolemus, the young son of the late warrior Achilles, after it has been revealed that the disastrous, decade-long Trojan War can only be won with Philoctetes’ invincible bow. Wily, glib and politically slick Odysseus wants Neoptolemus to befriend Philoctetes and, when his guard is down, steal the bow. Deceit is not in Neoptolemus’ nature, but patriotic duty compels him until compassion for Philoctetes reawakens his moral sense.
In Posner’s adaption, Neoptolemus is transformed into Niaptoloma, Achilles’ daughter. Kacie Rogers takes on the role, and she’s a beacon of truth in a production that often proceeds in broad strokes. The character is overburdened with playwriting epiphanies but Rogers never falters in her honesty.
As Odysseus, Lester Purry is at home in the contemporary vernacular of an inveterate double-talker, who lies for what he calls “the greater good.” He lures Nia with promises of battlefield glory, but the triangle with Philoctetes (Eric Hissom) is unevenly worked out.
Sophocles focuses on the dynamic between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus. The older man gives over his trust only to once again experience the callousness of betrayal, while the younger man repents his error and seeks to earn the forgiveness that will reward them not only with battlefield renown but also with a cure for Philoctetes’ foot. In the awkwardly titled “The Heal,” Nia becomes a kind of New Age physician, exposing the bad faith and spiritual errors of her elders, though the promise of healing that awaits Philoctetes if he sails with his bow to Troy is ironically given short shrift.
Posner’s staging features a lively chorus of three muses (played by Eunice Bae, Emma Lou Hébert and Jaquita Ta’le) and a folk-blues guitarist (Cliff Eberhardt) who has composed original songs that zero in on weighty themes in a mild Bob Dylan-esque manner.
Visually, the production is diagrammatically simple. Thom Weaver’s scenic and lighting design situate the action in a theatrical nowhere. The onus is on the players, and increasingly it shows.
Hissom has the toughest time as hobbling Philoctetes. The makeshift bandage around his foot looks agonizingly real, but the character’s bitter anguish seems purely manufactured. A more stylized approach to this legendary castaway might have allowed for more realism.
The spryness of Posner’s riff is refreshing in the early going but quickly turns obvious. A chorus member, checking in to make sure the audience is keeping up with the plot, cracks, “‘It’s all Greek to me’ didn’t come outta nowhere!” (Is sitcom Sophocles a thing?)
The moody music tries to restore the seriousness, though even the songs are a little too on the nose. Eberhardt’s lyrics harp so much on “wounds” that even Nia at one point cries out, “Stop it, stop it, stop it! Enough about wounds already!”
Posner’s brand of postmodern self-consciousness worked wonderfully well in his free-form version of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” with the naughty title we decorously refer to as “Stupid … Bird.” The ironic navel-gazing came naturally to those melancholy artist characters. Sophocles’ crew is just as reflective, but the dramatic gravity is stronger. Posner’s annotative antics can seem as inapt as a doctor goosing a patient on a gurney.
Much of the play is spent elucidating the minds of characters thrashing out the debate over patriotic duty and private conscience. Posner respects the complexity of the various points of view, but “The Heal” injures Sophocles in a plot twist that assigns guilt to Philoctetes for his wound. This moralizing revision trivializes the character’s difficult journey to healing and domesticates the tragedy.
As Edmund Wilson observes in “The Wound and the Bow,” his fascinating essay on Sophocles’ play, Philoctetes is both a “victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless” and “the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs.” He’s a dilemma not only to his community but also to himself: If he relinquishes his grievance, he can finally be restored in body and reputation, but at the cost of burying all the injustice he has suffered.
Sophocles’ intricate plotting, which beautifully integrates internal movement with dramatic escalation, is simplified in a way that drains the play of its profundity of meaning. Nia’s maturity is stirring to witness in Rogers’ deeply felt performance, but the resolution of Philoctetes’ intransigence feels unearned.
Why bother with “Philoctetes” if you’re not willing to recognize the tragic truth lodged in its painful vision?
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturdays, through Sept. 28
Info: (310) 440-7300 or getty.edu
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes