By Marcina Zaccaria
With high ceilings and a wide staging space, The GK Arts Center (formerly St. Ann’s Warehouse) is an ample, fertile place for a soldier’s story. Sounds of helicopters, a bed, and images of Lemnos loom in the distance. From the depth of Philoctetes’ mind, we understand the horrors of battle, as Philoctetes, produced by Aquila Theatre Company, opens in Brooklyn.
Philoctetes appears shirtless, with a bow, outstretched. With long straggly hair, the audience can imagine that his best days are behind him. The Warrior Chorus – seated in the back of the performance space – sits intently listening, with black binders. They scream out line by line as the show continues. Though quite loud, they are a stabilizing presence, for those who seem shell-shocked.
The actors are US Army, US Army Rangers, and US Marines. Aquila Theatre Company is dedicated to highlighting the work of Veterans since 1991. The Warrior Chorus is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in a program that trains veterans in the arts and humanities. In 2008, they received Chairman’s Special Award, for a US program called Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives. This Philoctetes production can be looked at as a community action project. In it, the theater is a seeing place, with real people; stories, filled with agony, can be heard.
Direction by Desiree Sanchez (A Female Philoctetes at BAM Fisher’s Hillman Studio, Herakles at BAM and the Festival of the Aegean in Syros) sways toward the operatic. Taking advantage of every skill of the veterans, Sanchez very carefully asks these former soldiers to make sense of every word. Ideas in text find universality, as the Warrior Chorus comments on the action. Bright lights created by Peter Meineck (Lighting Designer, Translator, and Founder of Aquila Theatre Company) provide tall shadows on the back wall.
Richard Chaves (Tracers at the Public Theater, Letters Home from Vietnam) is a capable lead performer. With his foot bandaged from the horrors of war, we see the great flaw. Injury isn’t insult, in this drama. All of it is taken very seriously. A heaviness at the beginning of the play continues through to the end. This production of Philoctetes looks deeply into the innate value of the human being, and the exceptional skill of the soldier. Suffering for one is not suffering for all; many life lessons are waiting right around the corner.
Johnny Meyer US ARMY RANGER (American Volunteers) as Neoptolemus, Ed Walsh US MARINE (House of Cards, Alpha House, American Repertory Theater) as Odysseus, Brian Delate US ARMY (Salome with Al Pacino) as Phoenix, Caleb Wells US MARINE as Leukos, Michael Castelblanco US MARINE as Alcimus round out the cast to tell the story.
Sophocles has created a bit of a myth buster, with Philoctetes. In questioning honor, we find layers of meaning. Is war worth it? What is left after the battle – only a bow, a wounded foot? Audiences come to shows like this, somewhat dutifully. It’s been many years since wars (like the Persian Gulf War or the crisis in Iraq) have pervaded the news media. Aquila Theatre Company finds the safe space, and acts a medium, as the stories are being shared. It’s certainly not a failed attempt. Audiences, principal actors, and the Warrior Chorus can return to Aquila Theatre Company to share their solace, overcome any injury, and find an arena for expression.
Philoctetes is running at The GK ArtsCenter, 29 Jay Street until April 20.