Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

The Sum of its Parts: “Alcestis” at The Theatre at Boston Court sheds modern light on classic Greek drama

Kalean Ung and Jeremy Shranko lead the cast of Nancy Keystone's "Alcestis" at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Kalean Ung and Jeremy Shranko lead the cast of Nancy Keystone’s “Alcestis” at The Theatre @ Boston Court

One of the delights of living in this particular theatrical epoch comes from the willingness of modern audiences to accept the concept of playing with antiquity. Thanks to everyone from Orson Welles to The Royal Shakespeare Company, resetting and remolding Shakespeare is now more the rule than the exception. Go back even further, and the great Greek tragedies have been played around with just as much, if not more. Indeed, their survival has come from the timelessness of their themes. Twisting these universalities to reflect our own times is not that big a stretch.

Which brings one to Nancy Keystone’s “Alcestis,” which uses the Euripides play of the same name as foundation for a remarkable journey. Now receiving its world premiere as a co-production of The Theatre at Boston Court and Critical Mass Performance Group, “Alcestis” takes an ancient and deeply mythical story as a way to examine the nature of sacrifice, of mourning, and of relationship. The result is sometimes very funny, often deeply insightful, and occasionally rippingly visceral. In other words, it is a theatrical delight.

In the Alcestis myth, the young king and former Argonaut Admetus, aided by his friend Apollo, wins the hand of Alcestis and takes her home to be his queen. Though many of Greece’s deities are ranged against Admetus and his bride for a myriad of reasons, Apollo continues to come to his aid. This, most especially, when the gods decree that the young king’s life shall end quite prematurely. Apollo gets the fates drunk, and talks them into agreeing to take someone else in Admetus’ place should someone else volunteer. In the end, after everyone else has declined, it is Alcestis who agrees. From there, the plot thickens further, and Keystone’s play really begins.

So, what would it be like to volunteer to die for your husband, especially if it doesn’t happen right away? And what must it be like to have someone you love taken in your place? And how would that resonate in a modern marriage? This the core of Keystone’s artful storytelling, which uses dance, music and symbolic gesture, along with considerable humor and occasional side references to the Euripides original to tell a compellingly poetic tale.

Jeremy Shranko creates a center for the piece as a likable if not particularly empathetic Admetus. Watching him deal with the often poundingly superficial rituals of modern grieving, or the symbolic weight of guilt and loss, creates fertile foundations for the work of everyone else in the cast. Likewise, Kalean Ung’s practical, loving Alcestis, balancing realities against the romantic ideal, gives a lightness to the play’s beginning which sets the tone for what will follow.

The Muses, led by Ray Ford (l.) explain the nature of life in "Alcestis"

The Muses, led by Ray Ford (l.) explain the nature of life in “Alcestis”


Everyone in the small, extremely able ensemble cast adds to the mix in interesting and deeply connected ways. Russell Edge’s Death is intrusive but not really scary. Lorne Green’s statuesque Apollo is as much Admetus’ buddy as some supreme being. Danielle Jones’ nursemaid voices the ache of nurturing, while Valerie Spencer typifies the self-absorption of extreme wealth. Yet, even in such an intensely ensemble production one cannot deny the standout performances of Nick Santoro as the over-obvious, rather dim Herakles (or Hercules), complete with his own outrageious send-up of Metal band music, and Ray Ford, whose sardonic servant and most vocal muse together provide the glue which holds this episodic tale together.

Playwright Keystone also directs, which is sometimes a dangerous thing but here provides a single, cohesive vision. Indeed, the sheer simplicity of the setting makes one listen, not only to the words, but to the movements which often speak louder than words – far more able to illustrate, say, the toll of grief than talking ever could. Even when it comes to words, she blends mediums, adding to the mix of five translations of the Greek version with snips from everyone from Plato to Rilke to Woolf on Euripides’ original themes. It makes for a very rich, satisfying stew.

“Alcestis” is funny, wrenching, inventive and deeply felt. It runs for about an hour and a half without an intermission, but leaves you startled at the end by the passage of time. In its juxtaposition of the extraordinary with the mundane, it offers more then just a comment on the struggle between fate and the powerful, but rather a chance to reexamine the intimate relationships of one’s own life. Food for thought, indeed. But then, much fodder for discussion is the natural outcome of a sojourn at Boston Court.

What: “Alcestis” When: Through July 28, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena (at the corner of Mentor and Boston Court) How Much: $34, with discounts for seniors, students and groups Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.org

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