“I sing the wrath of Achilles ...” If The Iliad doesn’t recount the fall of Troy so much as it does the seemingly endless war of attrition that preceded it, and of deeds of arms on the field, and vanity and wounded pride in the tents behind the lines—then Gary Graves’ Achilles and Patroklos (staged by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club) isn’t just a deliberately anachronistic parallel between Homeric heroics and the quagmire of occupation following the invasion of Iraq, as it is more an attempt to view the different facets of interpersonal experience as conditioned (and distorted) by an interminable war.
Opening with the crash of waves over the inarticulate sound of whispering voices, a figure enters in the plain dark dress and covering mantle that have been worn by women in the Mediterranean and the Middle East for millennia. Then a G.I. in camouflage enters, on his helmet stenciled “Achilles” (Cole Smith) next to his pack of smokes, brandishing his automatic weapon. He challenges the woman, who approaches him from the shadows, announcing herself as Cassandra (Pamela Davis) with a warning that the gods intend his death in the war.
He frisks her as she loudly protests, and tells her, “Your gods can kiss my ass.”
This tone of deliberate anachronism and of bellicose cruelty and sharp, humorous non sequiters syncopates the dialogue and also gives the action a shaggy, vernacular texture. Cassandra starts declaiming something like Homer in prose, accusing Achilles with a list of the names “that go on and on” of those he’s killed. She has a fit, falling to the floor, as lanky, laconic Patroklos (Alex Klein), Achilles’ comrade-in-arms, stalks in to ask, “What’s wrong with her?”—“She’s a nut!”
Cassandra has come out from the besieged city into the field of battle to warn Briseis (Jessica Camacho), another daughter of Troy’s King Priam, to return within the walls to safety. Achilles and Patroklos confront and kill Briseis’ husband offstage. Briseis tries to stab the Greek hero, who takes her and her country estate as spoils of war. And, as it develops, to Cassandra’s uncomprehending shock, Briseis likes the arrangement, garishly (and hysterically) illustrated by the most outrageous scene of the play, a kind of R&R romp of the two combat vets with their girl, very much a ménage-a-trois, as Achilles demonstrates when, cross-dressed and in a long blonde wig falling past his dark stubbled chin, he kisses Patroklos, who towers over him.
The quick-change act of anachronism creates ambiguities: are Cassandra’s prophesying trances part of an act to get her own way? Do these slangy G.I.s really believe the archaisms they casually sling along with barracks talk, or are the quick epithets just throwaway clichés in deference to tradition? But like Fate—or the incongruous combinations of blasphemy and belief in magic spells—unlikely things come about that seem to carry the seal of divine will. Or are they from the desperate whims of shell-shocked, war-weary souls losing their grip?
Agamemnon (Matthew Joseph), who has figured in a few salty remarks Achilles has made to Patroklos, arrives on the scene to recall the errant hero to the line of duty.
The play’s at its best when the hybrid dialogue and action- run full-bore. When on message, the speeches become too expository, the strange tone that powers the play gets lost. Sometimes, the various strands that compose the unusual dialogue unravel, and things start sounding like a B-movie untempered by burlesque. In other moments, a narrative or rhetorical mode becomes a virtue: Patroklos’ Shade tells (and acts out for) Briseis of his death when he enters the fray in Achilles’ “equipment” to raise the spirit of the Greeks and scare the enemy.
The indirectness of the presentation of combat only increases its effectiveness, putting the emphasis on its effects, not the sensation. As usual Central Works has assembled a good cast and displayed high production values. Christopher Herold’s direction creatively uses every inch of the stage, as well as offstage space, and designers Robert Ted Anderson, Tammy Berlin and Gregory Scharpen have lit, costumed and added the dimension of sound and music very well.
As a play using deliberate anachronism, Achilles and Patroklos shows originality and application. There are moments when the waywardness of battle fatigue becomes a wayward presentation of the same, and story and theme are not so much advanced as added on through exposition. But as theater, this play’s an unusual addition to the “war is hell” dramatic literature, which stretches back 2,500 years to the Greeks themselves. And it’s a great deal more than that, as spectacle onstage.
Central Works presents Achilles and Patroklos at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 5 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. $9-$25. For more information, call 558-1381 or see www.centralworks.org. ›