As millions of refugees escape from their homes in Syria in order to find a better life free of political tyranny and constant warfare, many American politicians turn their backs to the victims of such gruesome acts committed by President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. We sigh when we read stories of children drowning outside of Greece trying to flee oppression but we fail to act. We say this is not our problem.
The Hockaday Theater Company’s production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “The Love of the Nightingale” forces the audience to draw parallels between the story of this classic Grecian myth and the abuses of the persecuted people around the world. Wertenbaker’s adaptation of a classical myth was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and debuted in 1989 at The Other Place, Stratford.
This one-act play performed on Friday April 15 at 4:30 pm and 7:30 pm in Clements Lecture Hall follows the story of two Athenian princesses: Philomele (sophomore Maria Zhang) and Procne (sophomore Ruth Caracamo). The innocent and pure Philomele relies on the wisdom of her older sister Procne, and the two share an unbreakable bond of friendship.
However, the purity of this relationship diminishes after their father, King Pandion (senior Karla Salinas), wages war against the island Thebes. The King of Thrace Tereus (sophomore Maye McPhail) aids Pandion, ultimately resulting in an Athenian victory. Pandion offers his daughter Procne to this foreign king as a reward for his valiancy and military assistance, isolating the two sisters from one another.
Zhang and Caracamo have a genuine connection on stage that makes this estrangement even more heart wrenching to the audience.
All the while, the Male Chorus (senior Mercer Malakoff), adorned in jeans and colorful glasses, narrates the story and draws the audience out of classical society into our modern world. Malakoff dominates the stage with aplomb and speaks with a refreshing candor – even when discussing horrific tragedy. The Male Chorus constantly warms the audience about the looming disasters but notes that it was easier not to say anything.
This theme of the culpability of the bystander continues throughout the play as Procne sends Tereus to bring back her dear sister to join her in the eternally boring Thrace. She desires the philosophy, plays and activity of Athens and fails to connect with her attending women and Female Chorus (sophomore Grace Lowry, junior Tori Roy, senior Karla Salinas and senior Gillian Meyers). She yearns for the company of her younger sister, but the Female Chorus warns her of an ominous premonition and urges her to leave her sister in Athens.
Ignoring her attendants, Procne demands that Tereus return with her sister. On board the ship, Tereus falls for his wife’s sister but Philomele fails to recognize his interest initially. However, Philomele’s servant Niobe (junior Audrey Black), inured by life’s tragedies, notices Tereus’ sexual attraction to Philomele but fails to speak up and protect her.
While on the ship, Philomele finds comfort in the quiet and gentle Captain (junior Grace Cai) and begs him to help her escape the uncomfortable and inappropriate glances of Tereus. When Tereus finds the two together, he kills the Captain in a rage. McPhail skillfully captures the unbridled anger of Tereus with adeptly executed stage combat.
Then preying on the weakness of Philomele, Tereus untruthfully tells the young girl that her sister has passed away while hiking up a mountain to observe the sea. Then Tereus tells Philomele that he is in love with her, and she repeatedly rejects his propositions. The Female Chorus now surround the two with an elegant blue cloth and turn their backs as Tereus rapes Philomele. The cloth shrouds the two and leaves the audience to imagine the gruesome violence. We are only aided by the shrieks and cries of Zhang and the violent noises of McPhail.
Emily Gray, the director of the play and Hockaday drama teacher, succeeded tremendously in depicting this mature scene with skill and delicate tact by omitting gratuitous violence but still maintaining this tension and realism of the rape. Following the rape, Philomele speaks up against Tereus and questions his right to rule, so Tereus cuts out Philomele’s tongue, symbolically representing the lack of freedom of speak of victims against oppressive tyrants.
The following scene is perhaps my favorite yet. Following the rape, Philomele struggles with her role in this act of violence and asks if she would have worn her hair differently or sang different songs would Tereus still have been attracted to her. Zhang captures the meekness and passivity of this oppressed young girl and sheds light on the victim-blaming of modern rape culture.
The final scene depicts Philomele arriving at the Festival of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. After five years of estrangement, Philomele rejoins her sister and demonstrates her rape with crudely created dolls. This silent scene left me with goosebumps as Zhang perfectly reflects the fear and torture of reliving the scene to gain justice for herself and steals the show with this moving and dramatic scene.
This ensemble play truly highlighted the varied skills and talents of each of the Advanced Theater Class’ students. While Zhang wowed the crowd with her role as Philomele, each student was showcased and had the opportunity to impress the crowds with performances ranging from Cai’s reserved yet warm portrayal of the Captain to Sabrina Sanchez’s energetic and naive depiction of Itys.
For the first time in the last few years, the Spring Play was limited to Gray’s students in her Advanced Theater Class. Gray made this decision so that her students would have the opportunity to each grow as an actor and to perform at the ISAS festival, which only allows performances of different fine art’s classes.
Another new aspect of the play was the limited set design and sounds of the play. The unassuming and simple stage had a small number of props but relied more on the acting of the students than on elaborate sets to tell the story. This minimalism truly complements the play and doesn’t take away from the stunning story-telling of the cast.
In addition, the play relies on authentic sounds created by the cast rather than computer generated noises – aside from the song of the nightingale. On stage, a handful of metal toilet brush holders, filled with acorns, sticks, rocks and even recycled computer hard drives, sit, and throughout the play, various actors pick up these instruments to produce natural and real sounds, adding to the authenticity of an all-actor produced experience.
The play succeeds on two levels: it tells the tragic Greek myth with evident skill and immense talent and it forces the audience to leave Clements Lecture Hall with a whirlwind of provocative thoughts regarding the themes of the bystander, the rape of oppressed people and cultures and the victim-blaming of modern criminal justice.