The Sands Of Time Color 'Persians'

Erin Gann and Helen Carey, center, in
Erin Gann and Helen Carey, center, in "The Persians," Ellen McLaughlin's new version of Aeschylus's play by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (By Carol Rosegg)
By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 28, 2006

"The Persians" may clock in at a little more than 80 minutes, but director Ethan McSweeny insists it's a whopper. "There's nothing small about this production," he says.

The play, which examines the fallout from the Greek-Persian wars from the point of view of the defeated Persians, is Western civilization's oldest surviving drama. First performed in 472 B.C. and here given a contemporary translation by Ellen McLaughlin, the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Aeschylus's play is staged in a spare but highly evocative space: a subtle suggestion of an amphitheater surrounded by an expanse of crimson sand.

"I wanted the set to work on many levels," designer James Noone says, recalling his initial conception for the production at New York's National Actors Theatre in 2003. "I wanted something that was ancient yet modern; something that was very theatrical yet naturalistic. I wanted it to be a place where your imagination could be opened up, yet at the same time not be full of goofy scenery. I wanted it to have the spirit of impassioned people . . . coming together who have a story to tell and, with the simplest means possible [yet] in the most theatrical way, tell that story."

"I don't know why," Noone says, recalling his conversation with actor and National Actors Theatre founder Tony Randall, who initiated the original production, "but when he said, 'The Persians,' which was a play I was totally unfamiliar with, I immediately thought, 'I have to get red sand.' "

And he did . At Shakespeare Theatre, there are 18 tons of it surrounding a wooden planked, semicircular central playing area. When Persia's King Xerxes makes his entrance to meet and confront his advisers, down the sand rains, as if pouring the blood of his own army on his head, dripping down his shoulders, trickling through his fingers.

Noone knows an effective image when he finds one: "The red sand works on a lot of levels, too. It's a very powerful, strong color. It's the color of blood, it's the color of power, it's the color of sorrow." He insisted on enough sand to make entrances and exits onto the wooden platform arduous, making performers alter their gait as they sink in the six to eight inches of sand before finding control on the platform. "It's really important that you get a sense that people have a labored feeling when walking across that sand, that it's not an easy journey. It gives you a physicality that's important to engaging the play."

And it meshes completely with director McSweeny's conception, which eschews any semblance of marble pillars and toga-clad choruses. "I wanted to do something where, with every entrance of a new character, it would ratchet up the theatricality another notch," McSweeny says. The play begins quietly, with a prologue spoken in conversation by actors dressed in contemporary street clothes. "I wanted to push back that theatricality," the director says.

Noone agreed. Hence the bare central stage decorated with just a few small, movable benches. "It needs to feel like impassioned people who have something to say and just came together," he says. "They didn't build an elaborate place. . . . They're just people who have a need to say something and tell a story in the simplest means possible. If it feels like a production, then I think the message becomes manipulative and lost. . . . It's a story that rings true for all ages. You can find parallels with our time now, but you can find parallels with almost any time."

The Persians Shakespeare Theatre Company 202-547-1122 Through May 21

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