The agony of defeat the focus of ‘The Persians’

You’ve never heard of “The Persians.” They don’t teach it in theater history, at least not at GW. But it is, according to the Shakespeare Theater, the oldest surviving play in Western literature.

You might remember the situation from middle school ancient history: Athens, under attack by the vast Persian Empire, is emptied. Athenians take refuge on the island of Salamis, where they miraculously defeat the Persian army that outnumbers the Athenian forces four-to-one. Aeschylus fought against the Persians, and nine years after the Battle of Salamis, he entered this play at the festival of Dionysus.

They tell us this in a mini-prologue that accompanies the mounting of “The Persians” at the Shakespeare Theatre. Eight actors (David Mayo, John Livingstone Rolle, David Sabin, Emery Battis, John Seidman, David Emerson Toney, Floyd King and Ed Dixon) appear in business casual, seemingly climbing in from the audience. They deliver brief biographical information, and it begins.

Imagine if, in 1952, a play appeared by a former G.I. that portrayed the last despairing days of the Nazi regime – and made the characters sympathetic and human. That might give an inkling of the effect “The Persians” would have on Athenian audiences as it depicts the staggering defeat of the Persians, not in terms of Athenian glory, but in the horror and shame that must have ensued on the other side.

It is easy to assign modern political relevance to a story where a giant empire is crushed due to the hubris of a king who can’t live up to his father, and I’m sure many will.

Seventy-five minutes is all it takes. This is not a long play, but it packs a wallop. The characters, after all, are the leaders of the greatest empire in the world, which has just crumbled. Most prominent is the dowager queen, Atossa (Helen Carey), whose late husband Darius (Ted van Griethuysen) was the greatest military leader Persia had ever known.

The real standout in this cast is Scott Parkinson, as the Herald, a man who has walked across Asia Minor to deliver news of the stunning Persian defeat. Though Aeschylus’ dense monologues leave the mind ripe to wander, Parkinson is riveting from entrance to exit.

The most exciting technical element, however, is the presence of live music (composed by Michael Roth) in the form of two percussionists and a cellist. There’s nothing like a steady, ominous drumbeat to really get an audience going.

“The Persians” will play at the Shakespeare Theatre at 450 7th St. until May 21. Call 202-547-1122 for tickets.

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