Sophocles’ Philoktetes is the only extant play on a story mentioned in Homer’s Iliad; it was tackled by Aeschylus and Euripides as well. Their versions are known because of 1st-century criticisms by Dion Chrysostom, who compared them. Each of the ancients gave the story his own spin, just as MacArthur Award winner John Jesurun does in his version, parts of which date from the 1993 and the first Gulf War. For instance, Sophocles alone features the character of Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, who is brought by Odysseus to the island of Lemnos to fetch Philoktetes and his bow and arrows. Without the archer and his weapon, which belonged to Heracles, the Greeks cannot take Troy. But Odysseus abandoned Philoktetes (usually spelled “Philoctetes,” and accented like “catastrophe”) on the voyage out, because the warrior was bitten by a poisonous snake; the suppurating wound in his foot stank so bad that the Greeks marooned him. That betrayal means Odysseus needs Neoptolemus to cozy up to the castaway and trick him into helping them.
Jesurun, who also directed and designed the set, eliminates the Chorus and other characters. On a bare stage lighted with generally soothing projections on the floor and the upstage wall—a sparkling swimming pool, tree branches swaying in the breeze, clouds floating by—the three antagonists meet and talk in this updated version. Philoktetes is isolated in a hotel on Lemnos, having been kicked out of the hospital on the other side of the island. The action is “an autopsy conducted by the cadaver,” the hero announces to the audience.
The plot here plays a poor second fiddle to Jesurun’s vivid language. The words veer from startlingly lyrical to crude vernacular. At times they have the beauty of a dark psalm:
“If I give you a brain full of black blood, You will rejoice and thank me for it, If I give you a three-headed son, You will jump for joy. If I give you testicles of salt, you will rejoice. If I rain thalidomide on your people, You will rejoice and thank me.”
But frequently this elliptical poetry just piles up frustratingly. “Jesus, make me into clear water,” says the suffering bowman. “Can’t you see I am covered in white powder, a toppled minaret, armless and close to starvation, lost in a sea of ventriloquy, the lithium at the end of the tunnel.”
The mention of Jesus is no accident. Religious words like “temple,” “transgression,” “crucified,” “salvation,” and “cross” recur, along with “hammer and nails.” But Jesurun blends Christian and pagan beliefs confusingly. “For we are blessed among women,” says Philoktetes, who claims to have been transformed into a woman on the island. Early on, though, he notes that he was self-born, and moreover, “My first-born son was my lover, born of me and only me.” Much of it sounds familiarly Greek, like Zeus shape-sifting to fornicate with Leda or Danaë. And late in the play comes a scene that echoes both St. Peter’s denial of Christ three times as well as Judas’s betrayal. Neoptolemus asks Philoktetes for a kiss twice, and Philoktetes asks Neoptolemus for one as well. The homoerotic scene has resonances of the garden of Gethsemane, but which is the Judas and which St. Peter is unclear.
That kind of muddle is unfortunately typical of this frequently inert play, which loses a listener in thickets of oblique dialogue and situations. The plot involving the bow, which is crucial in Sophocles, is dispensed with quickly; the language is the primary interest to the writer-director.
That’s reflected in the casting. The actors, dressed (by Ruth Pongstaphone) in dark, contemporary civilian clothes, have not been cast in a realistic way, but for their delivery of the language in clear diction and incantatory phrasing. Louis Cancelmi, for instance, is far too hale and handsome to be a battle-hardened soldier, wasting from disease for a decade, and the willowy, questioning Neoptolemus of Jason Lew doesn’t look like he has Achilles’ DNA. Will Badgett does lend Odysseus some of the harshness and taciturnity of a military man, but their common talent is to handle the language with restrained intensity that provides some dramatic tension. The primacy of language isn’t so bad if Jean Racine is writing the dialogue and the dramatic situations are clear, but here it misfires badly.