This poetic adaptation of Philoctetes, by Sophocles, veers between excellent and terrible.
In the excellent column: playwright Seamus Heaney's colloquial verse, the six stately actors portraying Greeks during the Trojan War, and the set—a giant pile of white rubble resembling a heavy cloud, designed by Blythe Quinlan.
In the terrible column: director Tina Landau's instruction that the three-man chorus sing its lines in harmony, here sounding like an R&B boy band, there sounding like a adult-contemporary folk trio. And Landau's use of Viewpoints exercises (which, for the uninitiated, look like a cross between yoga stretches and modern dance gestures). Landau is a respected director, who has worked with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and Viewpoints guru Anne Bogart. But the acting exercises that she and Bogart popularized are best kept in the rehearsal hall. Seeing them tacked onto the stage action sucks us out of the world of the play every time.
And what a world it is: When the Greeks were on their way to Troy, a warrior named Philoctetes suffered a cursed snakebite that lamed his foot and gave him horrible shrieking fits. So Odysseus, on behalf of the Greeks, abandoned their useless warrior on a barren island. Ten years later, the Greeks learned they needed Philoctetes's bow (which he inherited from Hercules) to win the war. The play begins with wily Odysseus and innocent Neoptolemus returning to the island to trick the homicidally bitter Philoctetes into lending his bow for the Greek cause. It's a study in rhetoric and trickery, and the actors, when they're allowed to simply speak Heaney's text, hold our attention—particularly Boris McGiver as the wild and pissed-off Philoctetes, a noble man driven partway mad by hurt and loneliness.
Heaney's language is straightforward and rewarding, with individual lines leaping out of the text like fish: "How am I to keep on praising the gods when they keep on disappointing me?" And: "History says, 'Don't hope on this side of the grave.'"
But the result is a production that insists on breaking its own spell.