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The Persians: Blood on the sand 

Theatre in the Square brings an old war into a new light

The world's oldest surviving play, The Persians by Aeschylus, was first performed in Greece in 472 B.C. The Persians' most recent incarnation, however, was born of current events from this decade.

When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, the late actor Tony Randall, chairman of New York's National Actors Theatre, commissioned a new version of The Persians for production as soon as possible. Ellen McLaughlin wrote a new adaptation in a week, and the emotionally fiery new version of the play opened May 22, 2003.

The present-day parallels are unmistakable. The Persians takes place in what we now call the Middle East and depicts the world's mightiest nation pursuing a disastrous military conflict, led by a headstrong son more reckless than his father. Theatre in the Square's poetic production of The Persians, like McLaughlin's adaptation, avoids heavy-handed contemporary touches and leaves the political interpretations to the audience. Directed by John Ammerman, The Persians embraces some eccentric ideas in bringing the ancient play to life, but the bold staging ekes out a triumph.

Actor Maurice Ralston portrays part of the chorus of Persian councilors and also delivers McLaughlin's context-setting introduction to the play. Aeschylus fought against the Persian invaders in the Battle of Marathon and again 10 years later in the Battle of Salamis, which cost the Persians nearly their entire army and provided the playwright with his subject. Ralston explains the events from the Persian point of view and puts a deliciously sarcastic inflection in the line, "With [The Persians], Aeschylus won first place at the Festival of Dionysus." The action properly begins in the Persian capital, as the five-actor chorus (including Marianne Fraulo, John Basiulis, Marshall Marden and Clint Thornton) awaits news from King Xerxes' glorious army.

Genuinely stirring poetry unified McLaughlin's script, such as an early scene in which the chorus describes Xerxes' massive army, drawing soldiers from Egypt, India and the vastness of the Persian Empire. That sequence gets an agonizing reversal with the arrival of a herald (an impressive Rich Remedios) who announces that nearly all of the Persian forces were killed or drowned in a naval battle near Salamis. The chorus asks after famous heroes and generals, and the herald describes their grisly fates with such lines as, "They spin and rot unburied in the indifferent sea."

When the herald describes the Greek army crying "Liberation!" before launching their attack on the Persians, you can imagine applause greeting the line from the original Greek audience, which saw the play less than a decade after the actual battle. For the most part, however, Aeschylus avoids gloating to show sympathy for the Persians as they struggle to comprehend the magnitude of their soldiers' deaths and their empire's defeat. (Imagine if Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima were released only a few years after the end of World War II.)

The Persians works almost better as a national tragedy than a personal one. Xerxes' impious hubris destroyed his people, yet when the defeated ruler finally takes the stage near the play's end, Travis Smith comes across more like a deluded god/king than a callow son who ruined the family business. Smith's grief is palpable, and Xerxes is meant to be a broken man, but it's difficult to imagine him lording over countries or bending a river to his bidding. The family drama connects more sharply in Jen Harper's blend of stately bearing and maternal anguish as his mother, Queen Atossa.

The conventions and rituals of classical Greek drama can seem strange to modern eyes, so John Ammerman must have seemed a natural choice to direct The Persians. The Emory professor and longtime Georgia Shakespeare veteran actor is well-versed in old-school acting techniques, and cultivates highly stylized performances from the cast. In the first scenes, the chorus moves slowly in unison, almost like they're doing tai chi, and their deliberate pronunciation frequently suits the poetry better than a more naturalistic style would.

Some of the creative choices backfire. Basiulis speaks in such a low, affected voice that it's like he's straining toward a Darth Vader impression, and you pay less attention to what he's saying than to how he's saying it. When the chorus gathers to sing a vengeful song of Xerxes' folly, the overwrought music sounds like an angry, "exotic" tune from Disney's Aladdin and almost veers into comedy.

Despite such stumbles, Ammerman's The Persians plays on the audience's senses in a way that emphasizes the play's timelessness. The play begins with Ralston releasing from the ceiling a thin stream of red sand, which spills onto the stage for the course of the play, like an unhoused hourglass. The sand evokes both the parched desert climate and the bloody battle, and makes a contrast to the central font of water where the chorus frequently gathers – and from which the ghost of Xerxes' father Darius (Gary Yates, commanding and ethereal) rises, somehow without getting wet.

Few local theaters, particularly those in the suburbs, would stage such a risky production that combines charged politics with antiquated staging techniques. The Persians serves as a reminder of Theatre in the Square's willingness to use hits about Celestine Sibley or the Sanders family to bankroll provocative work. By the end of the play, the Persians have gone from cool imperial decadence to the glaring heat of their failures, and you can't help but wonder how modern-day geopolitical quagmires will look in the harsh light of history.

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