Diversifying Greek Tragedy on the Contemporary US Stage by Melinda Powers
At first glance, Melinda Powers' Diversifying Greek Tragedy on the Contemporary US Stage might seem a surprisingly narrow slice of reception studies: nothing Roman, nothing comic, nothing Modern, nothing global, nothing nontheatrical. But it's the power of Powers' tome that it proves the enduring fascination (and versatility) of Greek tragedy: even within the relatively narrow ambit of her purview, Powers covers an impressive swathe of issues vital to contemporary performance in America, including non-white bodies and stereotypes; gender and drag; LGBTQ+ identity; and veterans' experiences, including PTSD. Some reception theorists—myself included—might be surprised by the absence of Charles Martindale as a theoretical frame: Martindale's famous definition of a classic as one that can serve as a (reiterative) vehicle for pluralistic "voices" might serve Powers' purposes nicely (Redeeming the Text, Cambridge, 1993, 28). But perhaps Martindale is too textual for her purposes: instead Powers draws especially on the scholarship of Sue-Ellen Case as well as Helene Foley and Marianne McDonald, each of whom is dedicated to the notion of performance as performance, not simply as text. Thus Powers bills herself a type of "cultural historian, examining the corporeal signifiers of each performance as if they were artefacts. Theatrical space, audience, performance style, and costumes are the material that I document . . ." (11). Because the extra-textual signifiers of performance are crucial to her research, she has largely confined herself to analysis of performances she has herself witnessed (which might account for the seemingly eclectic selection, with many from New York City, where Powers works). The book's five chapters, then, group about twenty performances into the headings above, with an entire chapter dedicated to Luis Alfaro's Chicano versions of Greek tragedy.
Chapter 1—"'The Black Body' in TWAS' MEDEA and Pecong and CTH's Trojan Women"—is an expansively titled but ultimately rewarding investigation of three Harlem productions of Euripides. It also shows a bit of Powers' polemical tone, as she chides critics for not paying more attention to Take Wings and Soar's Medea (2008), which received only one critic's review, even with famous actress Trazana Beverley in the title role. (So an admiring shout-out here to New York Theatre's intrepid Kat Chamberlain: we salute you.) TWAS' Medea presents for Powers an interesting study: it's a generally straightforward version of the play (designed in swanky, American threads, and with a formal-dinner vibe). But the cast is African American, and that one casting choice is enough to catalyze [End Page 129] a whole host of issues, some interpretative and some distinctly American. Set against the backdrop of violence against black bodies in the United States, this Medea avoids the cliché of having a white Jason and a black Medea: "TWAS' production does not use the self/other, foreigner/Greek binary inscribed in the Euripides . . ." (32). Instead, this black Medea is herself "other-ized" by dint of her intersection of gender and race, a powerful reading of the title role (and predicament). In addition, the avoidance of translocation (to a specifically African or African American context) reinforces the idea that black and white America are "intertwined, not separate" (32). Contrariwise, TWAS' Pecong, a version of Medea, was specifically set in the Caribbean, thereby raising a host of other issues: this translocation transparently distances the "black body" from the classical text (41). In other words, translocation is also an act of bifurcation, of separating epochs and identities. A possible solution to the problem of translocation is introduced via the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Trojan Women which is here analyzed as a "double-conscious" translation: it interweaves the story of the Trojan War with that of the civil wars in Western Africa. As Powers elucidates, CTH's production may thus be read as ancient and modern simultaneously; it avoids the unfortunate division between "classical" and "diverse" that attends to some translocations of ancient tragedy.
Considerations of audience rise to the fore of Powers' second chapter, on Luis Alfaro's Chicano trilogy of Greek tragedies (Electricidad, Oedipus El Rey, and Mojada). In particular, Powers focuses on Alfaro's uncanny ability to execute stereotypes—and the pun is intentional. Firstly, there's "execute" as in to employ—the Latin sexpot, the wetback, the gangster (58)—but also execute as in, well, to execute: this is Greek tragedy, after all. But there's a built-in irony for this execution: a Latinx audience understands that the author is both staging stereotypes and undermining them, in a nod to Mexican American vaudeville traditions (especially the carpa show, 57). Thus Powers particularly applauds the LA-based productions of Alfaro's work, which worked hard to play to Latinx audiences (the Getty even bussed in Latinx patrons, 85). Based on the matinee she attended at the Dallas Theater Center, however, Powers worries that its production of Oedipus El Rey, playing primarily to "middle-aged Euro-Americans," came off as inappropriately exoticized: that it reinforced unfortunate Latinx stereotypes rather than subverting them. (Other aspects of this production also troubled Powers: the naked love-making scene of Oedipus and Jocasta read to her as stilted and awkward instead of moving .) And here's where subjectivity enters the realm of theatrical criticism: I also saw this production and thought it was fantastic, especially the love-making scene, which was sexy and weird and traumatizing and all the things you'd want in theater. I also thought that the hyper-stylization of the Latinx prison community was insightful and effective, and brought home the play's political point: this is a marginalized group that's always imprisoned, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. (It's worth pointing out that I'm now a San Antonian, so perhaps my own radar is differently tuned than that of Dallas audiences.) Nevertheless, Powers' reading of the original plays [End Page 130] against American culture is sensitive to contemporary allegories—of immigration and urban violence especially—and will be essential background scholarship for scholars working on Alfaro's corpus.
Chapter 3 tackles representations of sex and gender in Split Britches' Honey I'm Home (a version of Alkestis), Faux-Real Theatre Company's Oedipus XX/ XY, and the recent Broadway flop Lysistrata Jones. This might seem a strange trio—Lysistrata is, after all, a comedy, not tragedy—but Powers focuses specifically on sexual roles: SB and FRTC tackle Greek drama from a feminist perspective (with an emphasis on butch/lesbian drag), while Lysistrata Jones' representations of gender can seem distressingly stereotypical and retrograde. For Powers, SB and FRTC are a type of artistic response to Sue-Ellen Case's pioneering article "Classic Drag" (89), which argues that Woman in Greek drama—because always performed in drag-replicates or reproduces the male-dominated social structures that inform the original staging. SB and FRTC's gender-swapped drag productions, then, attempt a reclamation of tragedy from the clutches of male-drag. Powers contrasts this with the absence of drag in a musical comedy (Lysistrata Jones), which seems to me an awkward logical swerve, and I wonder if a different production would have added a bit more oomph to the conclusion. (Spike Lee's Chiraq, for instance, though a film, is at least a "tragic" version of Lysistrata and also fertile ground for discussing gender and violence. Also, without drag.)
Powers' fourth chapter then shifts to gay male versions of classical tragedies, including Allain Rochel's Bacchae, Tim O'Leary's The Wrath of Aphrodite (a version of Hippolytus), and Aaron Mark's Another Medea. All three works are intensely political, pushing back on facile, mass-media portrayals of contemporary gay male life, "the stereotype of the 'tragic or suicidal homosexual' in particular" (124). Though intensely queer, these three works are also enriched through their associations with Euripides: it's one of the ways in which classical reception can further, rather than impede, the social progress of marginalized groups. As Powers cautions, however, ancient gay male sexuality is a fraught topic within classical studies, with various theoretical schools (principally Foucault and his critics) at daggers drawn. Powers explores how these works' absence of camp signifies a seriousness of discourse: you can be gay and not camp, even in a Greek drama. Powers' analysis of the monologue Another Medea is especially striking because it is so personal. "[Tom] Hewitt, who is well known for his portrayal of villains, sits absolutely still behind a desk for nearly the entire ninety-minute performance. . . . What I personally found so interesting about this performance was how vivid my memory of it seemed to be years after seeing it" (146–7). To me, a motionless monologue sounds like a difficult evening of theater, but Powers insists on its power: that the minimalism of the staging forced the audience to actively participate in the creation of visual imagery (147), including the harrowing death of the children by bathwater electrocution. Camp this is not!
Powers' final chapter—on tragedy created for/by veterans' communities—is her most tendentious. Both Peter Meineck's Aquila Theatre Company and Mark Doerries' Outside the Wire/Theatre of War Project are dear to many [End Page 131] classicists: they are considered outstanding examples of classical "outreach" to audiences often underserved by drama (classical or otherwise). In particular, these companies reach out to American veterans, with readings and talkbacks concerning especially germane plays, such as Ajax and Philoktetes. Intriguingly (and, perhaps, controversially), Powers draws a distinction between the efficacy of the two enterprises: while Aquila's gender-swapped Philoktetes is able to highlight the challenges facing female soldiers and veterans, it does so while skirting issues of victimization and instead offers a more nuanced picture of health as well as vulnerability. Doerries' project, by contrast, is criticized for perhaps blurring the line between therapeutic sharing and "trauma porn," where talkbacks conflate specific mental-health challenges with the more general experience of veterans (191). (For evidence, Powers cites a YouTube commentator who complains that Theater of War is making a "mockery" out of PTSD .) On Powers' reading, Doerries' de-historicized reading of Greek tragedy shies from the sorts of critical analysis that the Greek tragedies deserve, and instead reveals some "shortcomings" (191) in its programming, shortcomings that a richer investigation into disabilities studies would avoid.
Diversifying Greek Tragedy is a challenging work, in multiple senses. Challenging in that it's intensely theoretical (critical race studies; disabilities studies; queer studies) and challenging in that it's not afraid to call out some cherished American institutions and groups (including the Dallas Theatre Center and Theatre of War). Because Powers chose works that she largely witnessed herself, the corpus won't be to everybody's taste, and some of the plays are difficult to find or recover. (For instance, the analysis of Split Britches' performance is based on a video of the original 1989 production, provided to Powers [104 n. 57].) But Powers' take on contemporary performance as performance sets her apart from nearly every other reception theorist in classics who—like me—tend to cling to text as a hermeneutic lifeline. Her argument is a salutary corrective to that particular lens, and her eyewitness descriptions and analysis will allow these works to be considered alongside more well-known receptions. As contemporary practitioners continue to produce diverse versions of Greek tragedy—such as Madeleine George's recent transgender version of Euripides, Hurricane Diane—we can expect Powers' book to be a touchstone for scholarship that explores classics' rich intersections with identity, diversity, and performance. [End Page 132]