With The Cure at Troy, UMKC makes an ancient play all too timely

 

A couple of minutes into The Cure at Troy, just after an ominous volcanic rumble, we get the old God-in-the-machine bit that usually hits at the end of this kind of thing. A roar from above, a host of lights and a gush of the anticipation and apprehension that together make awe, and then we gather what’s really going on. A chopper is hovering, and a serviceman — American, of course — rappels down onto a hard scratch of desert.

This is Neoptolemus (Todd Carlton Lanker), the son of Achilles, dispatched from the never-ending war at Troy to collect Western culture’s first WMD: the bow of Philoctetes.

Greeting the soldier with a muezzin’s call, Odysseus (Ben Sansom) appears, bearing exposition and underhanded advice. He sports Matt Groening’s haircut and the clothes of all nations: Western suit, Middle Eastern robe, continental ascot and a pair of blue Texas shitkickers.

Then The Cure at Troy gets interesting.

UMKC’s extraordinary production of Sophocles’ play, directed by Barry Kyle of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is a marvel of conception and movement. Kyle stages a mounting series of astonishments, including out-of-nowhere production numbers, a near-beheading, an Abu Ghraib tableau, a glimpse of Mt. Rushmore and the climactic opening of the heavens themselves. Sometimes moving, often sensual, occasionally going so far over the top that it could see your house from up there, the show hauls the ancient right into the now. It shouldn’t be missed.

Here’s what you need to know going in. Worn down after years of war, the Greeks get wind of a hail-Mary exit strategy. An oracle reveals that if Philoctetes, who wields the bow of Hercules himself, comes to Troy by his own will, the walls of Troy will fall. Philoctetes, though, hates the Greeks, who abandoned him en route to the battle a decade before. (Seems a snakebite he’d suffered had come to stink so bad that Odysseus kicked him off the boat.) A decade after Philoctetes’ expulsion, Odysseus instructs Neoptolemus how to trick the wounded vet into returning to service. What follows is a dramatic meditation on war and duty, on self versus the state, on the price that sometimes must be paid for peace.

Logan Ernstthal is richly moving as Philoctetes, imagined here as a homeless vet wearing Saddam’s spider-hole beard. Even wailing or suffering a seizure, Ernstthal is recognizable as a man first and a Greek hero second. When he speaks tenderly of home, this oldest of themes stirs us anew. When he refuses to soldier up and end a senseless war, the most contemporary of themes strikes us harder. His justifiable hatred of the men behind the war leads him to care too little for the men fighting it.

A brute ugliness characterizes the set, despite the fact that the vast seascape backdrop — an ugly blue tarp, almost featureless except for a bloody smear of sun and a procession of black, planetoid blobs — reproduces Joan Miro’s gorgeous Blue II and Blue III. Beneath the tarp lies the desert, which comes to feel real. Sand kicks up when the chorus whips a chain along the ground; water splashes when the chorus members anoint themselves in a stream. A slope of black rocks rises in the wing, its stones sliding dustily when the cast sprints up it, and ropes and catwalks thrust into the crowd, offering plenty of room to climb, pose and beseech the heavens. That beseeching often comes from the all-female chorus, a comely sextet in prom dresses, backpacks and knock-off Doc Martens — save for brave Cassandra Schwanke, the third-year MFA acting student heading the squad, who manages to be both serene and apocalyptic done up only in bra and bunting. Fervently human, this chorus balances the ritualistic unison common in Greek drama with livelier, more eccentric expression. In short, they steal the show. They snake along one minute, a single flowing, glam-punk being; the next, they’re kicking back with bottles of water and Arabic newspapers pulled from their backpacks. An early speech becomes a rousing chant-and-stomp workout. Another, later, becomes jazz cabaret, the lines torch-sung over moody synths and a Twin Peaks bass line. (Matthew Janszen’s music is consistently effective, and the sound design, by a number of theater department stalwarts, is terrific.)

Other surprises, including at least one holy shit! costume choice, I’ll leave for you to discover. One caveat: You are expected to work here.

The fact that you’re trusted to is encouraging. A year or so back, a theatrical type assured me that his upcoming show would make Shakespeare “relevant.” His word choice galled me for a number of reasons, chief among them the hubris involved — as though Shakespeare needs any of us to matter. Moreover, I found his goal less lofty than sad. Yeah, culture died some decades ago, but it’s a defeat to think that relevant is an artist’s best aim. In The Cure at Troy, as Kyle and company emphasize the far-off past’s connection to now, they also move, madden and entertain, with all of the elements of theatrical performance in rare concert. They vault past the relevant and bull’s-eye the vital.

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Categories: A&E, Stage