This past weekend, students, family, friends and a dog gathered along the steps of the Wriston Art Center’s outdoor amphitheater to see Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy “Alcestis.” An independent student-run theatre company, Prescribed Escape Productions (PEP), performed three showings throughout Saturday, May 21 and Sunday, May 22. The play was first presented circa 438 B.C., so the open-air Wriston amphitheater provided a nice setting for the performances with considerable use of the space and the feeling of attending a real-live production in Ancient Greece.
Since its first presentation, “Alcestis” has seen 24 theatrical and 23 operatic adaptations. The play holds both tragic and comedic elements and follows the story of Apollo, who is sent to serve the mortal king Admetos, who is fated to die. When the king’s wife Alcestis volunteers to take his place, the audience is left to ponder questions of mortality, responsibility, fate and the relationship between mortals and the gods.
The first act opened with Apollo, portrayed by junior Kyle Labak, who also served as the narrator and introduced the audience to the house of King Admetos. With guitar in hand, Apollo sang to the audience of Zeus, “a great and jealous god,” and of the truth that “eyes [are] too narrowly trained on causes” instead of following the course of fate. The royal household along with Admetos, played by senior Matt Johnson, filed onstage and were overcome with grief as Alcestis bid farewell to her family before she gave up her life. Death, played by freshman Ming Montgomery, entered the stage from the steps of the amphitheater, wearing dark sunglasses and a black leather jacket—a modern touch to the ancient play. Representing Admetos’ fate and calling Alcestis to the underworld, Death proclaimed, “[F]ate is fate—when everything is too late then Admetos will understand.” King Admetos watched as his wife was taken away by Death and pleaded with her to pray, hoping that praising the gods might change their minds about his fate.
In lamenting the lost queen, the chorus—played by freshmen Mia Delasho and Callie Ochs and senior Sara Nordin—portrayed the Fates in Greek mythology. As they sang, they stretched out a ball of yarn in front of the audience to represent the life of Alcestis, saying that she “welcomed death when she welcomed life.” This classical interlude added tragic elements to the production, and provided audience interaction when the chorus ascended the steps of the outdoor theatre to unravel the yarn.
The chorus and the servants of the household joined in the somber tune as Admetos knelt by the altar to bless Alcestis. When Pheres, played by sophomore Peter Ericksen, entered the stage, the audience saw how Admetos’ character changed when he was confronted by his father. As Pheres brought gifts to the altar, Admetos grew angry, saying that no gift was more precious than his dead wife. The chorus told the audience that Admetos was trying to free himself from grief and hostility towards his father, but the scene ended with Admetos cursing Pheres and wishing that his parents “ceas[ed] to exist.”
Amidst the sadness of King Admetos and the royal court, the second act was greeted with comedic relief as Heracles, played by junior Jacob Dalton, entered the stage. Again, Apollo came onstage, telling the audience that “any mortal would think twice” about letting a god enter the house of Admetos in the time of grief. However, Admetos, a talisman and good luck charm of Thessaly, welcomed the new guest inside. Unaware that the king mourned his wife’s recent death, Dalton was portrayed as Admetos’ drunken houseguest, demanding entertainment and disregarding the black dress and scarves the household and servants were wearing. There was laughter when freshman Annie Dillon, playing Admetos’ head servant, came onstage and told the audience that Heracles was the “weirdest and worst guest.” Heracles, dressed in dark sunglasses and a black leather jacket, came staggering out carrying a bottle of wine and told the servants to act out his twelve labors. In this humorous and lighthearted part of the play, Dalton did a convincing job of portraying the self-confident and strong demigod, running around and prompting laughter from the audience as he fought monsters—namely the Nemean Lion, Hydra and Minotaur.
Using the steps of the amphitheatre and railings on the Wriston Art Center building for the fight scenes, the audience looked up as Heracles wrestled Death. The chorus comforted Admetos, who was still in mourning, until Heracles descended from the steps and presented a veiled Alcestis to the king. Admetos was in disbelief that his wife had been brought back from the underworld, so the chorus reminded the audience to always honor guests, and the royal family and servants were seen embracing their loving queen.
All the actors joined onstage for a closing song and dance as Apollo sang a farewell song to the audience with his guitar. Musical instruments such as a clarinet, ukulele, tambourine, drums and a shaker were played as the act closed and let the audience satisfied with the happy ending. Despite being a tragedy, “Alcestis” provided humorous interjections and character comedic relief, and the performances’ three showings proved to be a perfect outdoor study break from final exams.