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Heaney’s ‘Troy’ handled deftly

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE CURE AT TROY, by Seamus Heaney. A version of Sophocles’s “Philoctetes.” Directed by Kevin Osborne. Featuring Jolie Garrett, Ian Oldaker and Rainard Rachele. At the Blue Heron Theatre, 123 East 24th St., NYC. Through Feb. 24.

Poets, the great and the not-so-great, have always looked upon the classic works of the ancient Greek stage as ideal subjects for reworking, updating or retranslating.

William Butler Yeats did his own version of Sophocles’s “Oedipus,” while Robinson Jeffers had a go at Euripides’s “Medea.”

In the early 1990s, the redoubtable Seamus Heaney did a version of Sophocles’s “Philoctetes,” which he titled “The Cure at Troy,” and which was first produced by Field Day, a producing and publishing endeavor created by Seamus Dean, Brian Friel, Stephen Rea and Heaney, among others.

The Sophoclean original was first staged in 409 B.C., while in this country, Heaney’s version has been produced at Yale and, three seasons ago, at the Jean Cocteau Repertory on the Bowery.

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Now “The Cure at Troy” is back, on the tiny stage of the Blue Heron Arts Center’s Studio Theatre, in a crisply efficient production directed by Kevin Osborne.

A single, barren, leafless tree stands upstage, buffeted by the island winds that accompany the surging surf on the Blue Heron soundtrack. Nearby is the mouth of the cave where Philoctetes has made home since he was abandoned by his fellow Greeks on their way to lay siege to the city of Troy.

Ten years before the time of the play’s action, Philoctetes had been bitten by a serpent, causing an infection that ravaged his body, making him putrify and motivating his comrades to abandon him on Lemnos Island.

Now, Odysseus has come to Lemnos to carry him to Troy, due to his belief in a prophesy maintaining that only Philoctetes, with the bow and arrows of Heracles, can take the city.

Accompanying Odysseus is Neoptolemus, the young son of Achilles, who is given the task of deceiving Philoctetes and luring him onto the ship. Odysseus is aware that Philoctetes would kill him if he recognized him.

The earnest Neoptolemus at first loathes the idea of deceiving Philoctetes, but eventually relents. He wins Philoctetes’s confidence and when Philoctetes asks for passage home, Neoptolemus fakes a reluctant consent.

Philoctetes’s illness takes hold of him and turns his bow and arrows over to Neoptolemus for safekeeping as he sinks into unconsciousness. The Chorus urges Neoptolemus to abandon the comatose Philoctetes and sail off with the invincible weapon.

But Neoptolemus, who has been described by scholars as the most fully rounded character in Sophoclean drama, has been reached and moved by the sorrows of Philoctetes. He comes to realize that the true meaning of the prophesy is the rehabilitation and eventual triumph of the disabled hero.

When Philoctetes regains consciousness, he is astonished to find that the boy has remained at his side. Odysseus reappears and threatens the old man with violence, saying that he himself could triumph with the weapon.

Philoctetes chooses to remain on Lemnos with the Chorus, and withdraws into his cave, knowing that starvation awaits him. Neoptolemus appears, followed by a puzzled Odysseus, who fails to realize that the boy, consumed by guilt, intends to return the bow and arrows to Philoctetes.

Philoctetes desires just one thing, to return to Athens. Young Neoptolemus tries to convince him to go to Troy instead, but Philoctetes is unmovable. The boy, after all, has promised to take Philoctetes home, and the older man holds the youth to his vow.

“Philoctetes” is perhaps the only example of Greek drama that could be said to have a happy ending, and poet Heaney hasn’t tampered with the plot in this respect. The County Derry-born Nobelist has, as always, produced verse that is lucid, transparent, and to the point. In “The Cure at Troy” it is also eminently speakable, as it must be if it is to work onstage.

Jolie Garrett brings the right note of crushed, compromised heroism to the role of Philoctetes, a torn and tattered wreck of a man after a decade of exile on Lemnos, and speaks the role with admirable simplicity and directness.

Ian Oldaker’s Neoptolemus is boyishly appealing, and sympathetic in his growing, earnest compassion for Philoctetes, while Rainard Rachele provides a multi-faceted Odysseus, willing and able to resort to deceit and even violence to achieve his ends.

As is not unusual with productions of Greek drama done on a tight budget, particularly on this small and restrictive a stage, the three-actress Chorus, dressed in rags, comes off a little like a modern dance class at Bennington.

Like the rest of the Blue Heron cast, however, the Chorus, with Sue Berch as the Leader, and Karla Hendrick and Margot White as her followers, handles Seamus Heaney’s Sophoclean language with clarity and insight.

— Joseph Hurley

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