Michael Kahn was facing his accustomed audience, a roomful of actors, though what he had to talk to them about was anything but customary. Normally, on this first day of rehearsal he'd give them an intimate sense of the surroundings in which they would be putting on their play at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, where he is the artistic director.
In this instance, however, he could offer no such helpful insight. The production they were preparing here in the studios of the Juilliard School, for which he also runs the drama division, was headed no place near Kahn's longtime D.C. stomping ground. It would, instead, be traveling where no Kahn production had gone before, to a vast, ancient space in the cradle of world drama.
"It's the big Roman theater below the Parthenon," he told the actors. "You climb up to the Acropolis, and there is this big Roman theater. And it seats 4,000 people."
The company was impressed. Murmurs rose in the rehearsal room.
"It's a little bit daunting. Challenging is really what I mean," Kahn said. "This is a way to see a play they know really, really well. And see it differently."
Actually, daunting was the right word. Bearing Greek drama to the Greeks is like cooking a Wolfgang Puck recipe for Wolfgang Puck. Yet Kahn had readily agreed when organizers of the Athens Festival, Greece's premier arts extravaganza, offered the Shakespeare Theatre an opportunity to bring its Sophoclean trilogy "The Oedipus Plays" to the Acropolis. This would represent that extremely rare event, an American theater company -- in a production made up entirely of African American actors -- reciting the venerated texts in an amphitheater packed with the Athenian cognoscenti.
As a result, the Shakespeare Theatre will make its Acropolis debut tonight, ending its visit after a second performance tomorrow. With Avery Brooks reprising the role of Oedipus, and featuring such other returning actors as Earle Hyman (as Teiresias) and Cynthia Martells (Antigone), the production is very similar to the one Kahn staged at the Shakespeare two years ago. Though during that run, there was no need for surtitles.
Not only is "The Oedipus Plays" the longest-distance transfer in the history of Kahn's theater, it's virtually the only such transfer. Some years ago he took an "As You Like It" to the University of South Carolina, and that's about it, Kahn said, for the Shakespeare Theatre's experience on the road. The company's limited wanderings may be a function of the high cost of mobility: The price of exporting "The Oedipus Plays" to Greece is about $400,000. Most of the money was raised from private sources, although the U.S. government is picking up a fraction of the tab -- $15,000, according to Kahn.
"I was very surprised and very pleased," Kahn said over breakfast before the rehearsal. "How many American theater companies go to Greece?"
He was impressed, too, when he went to Athens in April to discuss the production with the Greek news media. He was expecting a few vaguely engaged arts writers. What he found was a packed news conference with 70 journalists. And they actually seemed interested in the details about the production and its artistic ambitions.
"The Oedipus Plays" is three of Sophocles' works -- "Oedipus Rex," "Oedipus at Colonus" and "Antigone" -- condensed into a single evening, in an English translation by Nicholas Rudall. Kahn's notion was to shift the setting to ancient Africa and draw parallels between Greek and sub-Saharan cultures by showcasing the movement, music and ritual in the plays. He even took his creative team to Zimbabwe to absorb the local rhythms.
The production was greeted with mild applause by some critics -- in The Washington Post, Nelson Pressley remarked coolly on a certain "resolute stateliness" in some performances -- but it was embraced wholeheartedly by the Greek Embassy. Greece's ambassador at the time, Alexander Philon, was enchanted and told Kahn so. He urged Kahn to consider coming to the Athens Festival, which in the past had welcomed such celebrated artists as Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein and such institutions as the Kirov Ballet and New York Philharmonic.
"I went to the production and I really loved it," recalled Connie Mourtoupalas, cultural attache in the Greek Embassy in Washington. "I come from Thebes, and there you grow up with these legends. They're talked about like they're your family's next-door neighbors." With such familiarity had come some jadedness; many modern Greek productions, Mourtoupalas said, offer austere interpretations that fail to touch her.
"This production did a really wonderful job of bringing emotion into it, without making it sentimental or melodramatic," she added. "The way Michael did it really captured the elements that are present in Greek culture -- emotion and sensuality."
The news of the potential Acropolis gig was an emotional high for the actors. "When I heard the possibility that this would happen, I told Michael I would swim all the way to Athens," said Hyman, a veteran of the classics who, at 77, is the senior member of the ensemble. "I am deeply moved by this opportunity, and my deepest worry is I not burst out crying."
As unusual as it is for an American company to declaim in an Athenian amphitheater, it's almost as rare for black actors in the United States to fill the cast of any major classical production, from the smallest parts to the largest. That the Greeks had asked for this "Oedipus" was a matter of special pride to these actors, who stand, as a result, to garner more attention in Europe for their work in this project than they did during its U.S. run.
"It's a real testament to the depth of talent in the pool of African American actors in the classics," said Wendell Pierce, who is new to the production, playing Creon. "It also saddens you, knowing that these opportunities are few, not only for African Americans but for all actors."
"Obviously, this gracious invitation is quite extraordinary," Brooks said in a phone conversation a few days after the initial read-through. "It's quite a blessing to have the opportunity to stand on such historic ground, have this wave of history wash across us." The actor seemed pleased that the festival was so open to a setting of the plays that posited a bridge between the evolution of culture in Athens and Africa, a hot topic in academic circles.
"The further you go back, there are some common elements," Brooks said. "You're talking about a relationship with the earth, and the presence of sounds and music and dance and oral tradition. Once you have this group of people set foot in Greece, the connection is made."
Kahn had some logistical issues to deal with before these actors could make their Athenian entrances. The sets were superfluous: "We don't have any scenery because it's the most famous archaeological site in the world," he explained. And the costumes would be carried on the plane, in hand luggage. The scale of the production had to change, because the amphitheater stage is 50 feet longer than the one in Washington.
"It's a long way from the back of the theater, a verrry long way," Kahn told the actors in the Juilliard studio that day. The company will be in Athens a total of about a week, and because of the heat, rehearsals on the Acropolis on the days before the first performance would not get underway until 4 p.m. and not end until 4 a.m. "I can't say, 'Don't go out after rehearsal,' because there won't be anywhere to go," Kahn added.
Housekeeping matters seemed to be of only minor consequence to the cast at this particular moment. They had their minds on bigger things. "To do a play that came from that ground and that place thousands of years ago is a great honor," Pierce said later. "The level that it hits me at is so beautiful and so deep."