The King of Persia enters, to face his shellshocked nation. He's thrown away an empire on a military misadventure in Greece -- "rashly emptied a continent of men into the maw of death," as Aeschylus puts it -- and now he must acknowledge the fullness of his folly.
Director Ethan McSweeny cuts a stunning path to this turning point of "The Persians." At the back of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's stage, Erin Gann's Xerxes, the callow king, materializes. As he begins to walk forward, a fine spray of scarlet sand rains down on him.
The penitential gantlet he runs, it seems, includes a shower of his subjects' blood.
It's a potent moment in McSweeny's acutely theatrical take on this 2,500-year-old play, the earliest surviving drama in Western literature. Bolstered, too, by the sinewy elegance of Ellen McLaughlin's translation, the production illuminates with a funereal grace the discomfiting new role the Persians must accept: losers.
It would be misleading, though, to suggest that "The Persians" -- at a running time of a mere 80 minutes -- tells a wholly dynamic story. A stasis can take hold at times, and the production, first unveiled in New York in 2003, can feel a tad airless. What action there is has to do with receiving and processing the devastating revelation that the world's mightiest fleet has been obliterated by a weaker, wilier adversary: Athens. The evening that results is elegiac, somber and, thankfully, invigorated by several actors of particular finesse, vivid turns of phrase and some inspired bits of staging.
Those impatient with the rigors of ritualistic finger-pointing and lamentation will find "The Persians" squirmy. But others curious about whether an ancient text communicates something vital across the ages might draw deeper satisfactions here. Does "The Persians" qualify as modern prophesy?
A mirror is prominently displayed on the company's stage, and though its role is primarily decorative, you do wonder how much of ourselves we are meant to see in "The Persians." Xerxes' calamity, as recounted by a herald (sturdily played by Scott Parkinson), is one of hubris, of imagining his culture superior and therefore invulnerable. The king's circle of advisers tries to fathom the defeat -- as lopsided as the slaughter of the French at Agincourt in "Henry V." Inevitably, the counselors look for a scapegoat.
If the play's doomsday quality leaves pits in some stomachs, these might be occasioned by the sense "The Persians" conveys that no mortal power can reign forever -- that a nation's dominant role in the world can be over in the blink of an eye. The nuclear threat certainly reinforces this idea. (In an eerie coincidence, the critics' performance of "The Persians" coincided with newspaper reports that the Bush administration had contingency plans for military airstrikes against latter-day Persia.)
"The Persians" is set at the Xerxes court, where the king's advisers and mother, Atossa (Helen Carey), await word of Xerxes' success against the Athenians. They're in limbo, an idea McSweeny and his creative team reflect in an environment that is splendidly enigmatic. The circular space is furnished with tiny benches and ringed by an expanse of reddish sand. There's no effort to disguise the artifice; even some of the lighting fixtures are in view on the stage. At the far-back corners, a pair of percussionists (N. Scott Robinson and Orlando Cotto) keep to an incessant beat of portent. A cellist, Caroline Kang, is brought on, too.
What follows is the shattering of any illusions the Persians harbored, a recitation of facts the survivors can barely make sense of. McLaughlin carves the role of chorus up into speaking parts for eight older actors. In the program, they're assigned cabinet-style posts, such as Justice and Treasury; costume designer Jess Goldstein cloaks their street clothes in gorgeous robes. The effect is to humanize the impact of the disaster, to make clearer that the defeat carries a significance for everyone on the stage.
Accusations are exchanged. Atossa declares Xerxes was enticed "to leave his gilded life" by his "unscrupulous counselors." Such is the force of the universal grief that Xerxes' dead father, the beloved Darius (Ted van Griethuysen), is called back from the grave to comfort the country.
He isn't of much use. In the guise of the stirring van Griethuysen, Darius can only speculate on how his son could have brought a nation so low. "To do such a thing, he must have been goaded by some black madness of ambition," the old king says. "To risk so much, so many, defies all human sense."
By the point of Xerxes' return to court, exhausted and humiliated, there is little energy left for anything but mourning. "The Persians" ends with echoed references to "woe" and "home" -- an empire reduced to a few halting words.