In a retooled version of Aeschylus's "The Persians," refugees in war-torn Iraq mourn their losses at the hands of overwhelming American forces armed with "warheads that can strike from a thousand miles out." The victims claim that this is a war about oil, an assertion underscored by the thick dark puddle and giant busted pipes in Scena Theatre's poised production at the Tivoli Theatre.
This is Robert Auletta's adaptation of the ancient Greek drama, which literary purists and post-9/11 hawks will surely regard as the work of an alarmist liberal with his hair on fire. Americans are called the most arrogant people on the planet: "In their eyes we are barely human," laments one of the Iraqi characters. And the economic sanctions against Iraq enforced during Saddam Hussein's last decade are described as an effort "to garrote a country, cut off its vital life of trade."
In other words, the compassionate play Aeschylus wrote from the point of view of the Greeks' recently vanquished enemy has been converted to hotblooded contemporary agitprop. Yet this adaptation flows with surprising ease; it is written, for the most part, with cool intelligence. Auletta effectively retains the stately rhythm and elevated language of Greek drama while updating the references so smoothly that Atossa, the Persian queen, can wonder, "Is this television?" as she recounts a harrowing dream. Wacky lines, like the one that begins, "As a child, I loved monster movies," are surprisingly rare.
The politics, too, are more even-handed than you'd think. The atrocities of the Persian/Iraqi leaders are duly explored, and when Xerxes, the Persian general/Hussein figure, finally totters onto the stage, he's dangerously unhinged, mad with delight that the Americans haven't nailed him yet.
This all sits rather nicely on the Tivoli's stage, where the former movie theater's once-lovely, unrestored dome (with its badly peeling paint) is a perfect cap for the aesthetically arranged ruin of Michael Kachman's set design. With a glaring exception that is the last image of the play, director Robert McNamara's staging avoids pushiness and heavy tactics. Alisa Mandel's costumes subtly straddle the ages. Blinding bomb flashes are effective but sparing in Marianne Meadows's lighting design. And David Crandall's evocative sound, ranging from explosions to wind chimes to silence, follows suit.
The chorus, three men in wine-dark robes, chants and recites effectively enough; no innovations or particular pleasures here. But the lead actors are terrific. They find the shape and passion in the play's marathon speeches, and they truly make the show work. As Atossa, Kerry Waters is stately and shrewd, in complete command of the classical cadences, the emotional shifts and the political thrusts. Brian Hemmingsen is imposingly angry and bearish as Darius, the husband and former king that Atossa summons from the dead, yet he also drags with him the weight of profound political defeat. Eric Lucas, playing a messenger, and David Bryan Jackson, as Xerxes, each act to the limit of taste and composure -- only rarely careening beyond -- as the horrors of war are catalogued.
Whether playing it straight or trying the updating game, reviving Greek drama is a perilous business. The results are frequently shrill, naive, arid, unfathomably remote, or an astringent package of ungoverned flailing. This version of "The Persians" avoids most of the traps. At its best it conflates ancient and modern furies, and artfully controls them.
The Persians, by Aeschylus, adapted by Robert Auletta. Directed by Robert McNamara. Approximately 90 minutes. With Brian MacIan, Dan Awkward and Kim Curtis. Through Aug. 14 at the Tivoli Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Call 703-684-7990 or visit www.scenatheatre.org