Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Alcestiad

Yesterday, I saw Thornton Wilder's rather wild play The Alcestiad on Roosevelt Island. The outdoor production by Magis Theatre Company is just what New York needs as we head towards the end of a long plague.

A plague, in fact does figure prominently in the work, though it doesn't make a appearance until the third part. The first act shows the princess Alcestis (played beautifully by Mae Roney) decide ultimately to marry young King Admetus, in spite of the fact that she feels called to something higher in life. We then flash forward in time, and a older Alcestis (now played by Margi Sharp Douglas), chooses to take her husband's place in death.

It is that second part that is famous to students of Greek drama, since Euripides dramatized it so effectively, but there was more to the myth, and Wilder wanted to explore what happened after the demigod Hercules brought the queen back from the realm of the dead. When a plague strikes, Alcestis is blamed, since her return from the underworld is the only rational cause people can see for the disaster. Characters stumble about the stage with their faces covered in cloth to protect them from disease. (Yup, been there, still doing that...) They also take any chance they can to blame the disease on some outside force that isn't their fault. (Also sounds familiar.)

Fortunately, the third part of The Alcestiad brings hope for those wearied by disease. A dying girl's call for help can be interpreted as an invitation to despair, but it can also be interpreted as a way forward, a plea to create a better world. All of this is aided by the production's setting, directly behind a decaying smallpox hospital in a park dedicated to the four freedoms heralded by FDR.

As the virus that has afflicted us for so long finally recedes, we begin to experience the first of these freedoms, the freedom of speech and expression, in the form of returning theatre. We can only hope that the other freedoms, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, will not be far behind.