“Herakles” Tries to Modernize, Instead confuses

By Casey Koldewyn

Bringing the past to the present, the modern to the classical, Red Butte hosted two performances of “Herakles” over the weekend.

Western culture has strong roots in Greek culture, with Greek plays held up as the epitome of refined art. “Herakles” is one such Greek play, written by Euripides about the famously heroic half-god hero much of the Disney generation would recognize better as Hercules.

Known for his feats of strength and power, Herakles appearance in Euripides’ play of the same name can be shocking. Instead of the supreme protector he is known to be, Herakles is here presented as a war-weary veteran of more conflict than he is now capable of bearing. He even goes mad at one point–mad enough to kill all three of his children as well as his wife, stopping just short of the father that had protected Herakles’ wife and children while he was at war.

This story is one that has familiar notes. With continuous war, PTSD has become common jargon. Veterans’ stories of pain and trauma are only just beginning to be heard.

Translator Anne Carson, director Hugh Hanson and composer Ryan Fedor paid particular attention to those very components  of “Herakles” in their production of it, setting the play just after the Vietnam war when vets were returning home fresh from the horrors they had faced overseas.

In this retelling, through brilliant clothing design that successfully emulates the time period from common folk to soldiers, Herakles is presented as a Vietnam vet himself. The conflict is modernized, particularly evident in the sound effects of fighting, as well as Herakles’ madness, brought on by the cruelties of a jealous god, which is meant to be read as a type of PTSD.

While the idea is genius, the play itself fell short of its immense potential. Part of that was the language; instead of modernizing their words, or even altering a few of them so they made more sense in the context of that metaphor–like changing the constant refrain of “I have just returned from Hades” into something more like “I have just returned from the hell that is war”–the play was recounted verbatim to the original text. The fantastic clothing design, which successfully brought to mind the Vietnam war era, thus became more distracting than anything. It felt as if there were two stories going on simultaneously, one about a veteran of the Vietnam war, one about a half-god named Herakles; and the two did not combine cohesively.

There was so much the play could have done. PTSD is a part of U.S. life, at least, and one that desperately needs to be acknowledged. Westminster’s “Herakles” marked a step forward in that direction; it’s too bad it didn’t make the whole leap.

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