In times of great political or social unrest, sometimes there's solace in drawing parallels to similar periods of unrest in history. Sometimes we use these comparisons to make a note of our current mistakes and learn from them, and sometimes we use these parallels to lampoon those who dare to make the same mistakes again. The latter is the case with Waterwell's new production, The Persians...A Comedy About War With Five Songs. A lively, modern adaptation of Aeschylus's tragedy The Persians, this play draws less than subtle and less than favorable comparisons between a current Middle Eastern conflict and the ancient Persian Empire's squandering of wealth and force on a war steeped in vanity. Performed by four talented young actors with tongue-in-cheek bravado, along with an in-house band of two, the play is often funny and artful.
Yet it also suffers from the now common presumption in current Off-Off-Broadway plays that jokes about the ludicrousness of war are easy to make, since their audiences consist primarily of young New Yorkers who will readily agree. Selling this self-righteous, two-year-old joke with a new twist detracts from the impact of an otherwise fresh show and makes it feel largely like watching an inside joke.
The play opens with its cast bantering softly as the audience members walk in to take their seats. The set and costumes are coolly stark. The four actors, one woman and three men, wear black suits and hats, which they shed and add pieces to while playing various characters throughout the show, including "themselves."
Elizabeth Payne's costume design is clever and malleable, as when a wholly suited Hanna Cheek makes a sexy transformation onstage to Queen Atossa by adding just a tie and gloves. Sabrina Baswell's lighting design makes the most of the small space, heightening the most dramatic moments in the show, from the return of Xerxes from battle to the tight spotlight on the Fosse-inspired opening musical number. And Lauren Cregor's original music is excellent, referencing known styles from jazz to 70's funk.
The actors themselves bring vigor and confidence to their highly personalized lines. As Darius, the deceased former Persian king who returns to life to sing a greeting to his wife Atossa, Rodney Gardiner has a rich baritone voice and a self-mocking charm. Cheek plays Atossa with slinky elegance. As Xerxes, Arian Moayed exudes both intensity and goofiness as he slips between classical text and reality TV-type confessionals, and between English and the Iranian language of Farsi. And Tom Ridgely as the Herald is untiringly dynamic.
Yet these actors, for all their successful work as an ensemble, cannot escape the odd unevenness of the play's dialogue and theme. Frequently, the performers, having assumed their characters, recite long classical speeches, only to follow with an ironic self-reference. In one early scene, Cheek, as Atossa, recalls a dream she had, which is re-enacted by the other three actors in a balletic dumb show. The weight Cheek gives the speech as Atossa is lost when she switches to a light, contemporary, vernacular style.
The same is the case when Moayed enters as Xerxes to lament the loss of "Persia's sons." The care and import he gives to that moment of tragedy at the end of the play is simply odd because it seems to come out of nowhere.
Though only an hour and 15 minutes, The Persians is an excellent showcase for young talent and creativity at work on an ambitious, if generic, theme. The contrast between a classical text and a contemporary style has been used countless times before, often with success. Yet while the personalities here shine onstage, the context is far too uneven to be poignant, and far too serious to be really funny.