Hercules is a renowned ancient paragon of masculinity. He exerted colossal strength to carry out tasks no one else could accomplish, and vanquished monsters that no one else could defeat. Are you surprised a fifth-century BCE Greek play with a less than flattering portrayal of the hero’s dark side is lesser known and seldom staged? Much like the Romans who changed Greek stories to suit their own sensibilities, we often see Hercules through rose-colored glasses and cast him as the “good guy” in art, film, and plays. The Eclipses Group Theater is bucking that trend to retell a neglected story, reinterpreting Euripides’s Alcestis, along with excerpts from Euripides’s Hercules, in their new production Hercules: In Search of a Hero.
King Admetos (played by Demetri Bonaros) faces a tragic dilemma. He is sick and will perish unless someone else agrees to die in his place. Because he did a favor to the god Apollo (which is another story), he has been promised a chance to escape death, but only if someone will give up their life and go to the underworld in his stead. His elderly parents refuse to go; the only person who will die for him is his wife Alcestis (played by Luisa Alarcón). In a heartfelt scene, she laments how Greece is a man’s world, and for her children to have no father would be worse than no mother. She dons a trench coat and leaves.
Admetos and Alcestis enjoyed a reputation for lavish entertaining. Unaware of the death of Alcestis, Hercules (played by Luke Couzens) turns up at their house expecting to party. Not wanting to disappoint the hero, Admetos directs his servants to break with mourning and pour Hercules a drink. But the hero picks up on the bartender’s reluctance and confronts Admetos, who tells him the true story of his wife going to the underworld for him.
Hercules is immediately unlikable. Decked out like a GI Joe figure in camouflage pants and a wife beater, he flaunts his massive biceps, is far more virile than the comparatively wimpy King Admetos, is an obnoxious drunk, and oozes overconfidence. This is not the Disney character.
In the ultimate act of machismo, Hercules decides to go to the underworld to pick a fight with death and bring Alcestis back. (Although, it’s ambiguous whether he’s doing it just because he can or because he actually cares.) In a riveting scene with flashing strobe lights, Hercules fights death and becomes incredibly bloody, but eventually prevails, and then there is a happy ending since the couple is reunited.
Ioanna Katsarou, who conceived and directed this work, faced a decision. Does she stay true to Euripides’s script that in essence fails the Bechdel test? Or does she diverge? And she chose to diverge by creating new female characters. For example, Katsarou intriguingly brought in Megara, powerfully played by Helena Farhi, who is the wife of Hercules, and whose story is told in Euripides’s other play Hercules, from which the director drew some material for this production.
Ancient authors record two different resolutions to this story. Euripides went with the version where Hercules saves the day. But in another account, first recorded in the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus in the first or second century AD, it is Persephone who intervenes to rescue Alcestis. Upon learning the good wife’s story, the Queen of the Underworld decides to overrule the wishes of the other gods and sends her back to earth. Mythological plot lines were not frozen in time but mutated as time unfolded, and literary interests shifted. And this tradition of revising and playing with tradition continues with Hercules: In Search of a Hero.
Given all the creative and playful liberties taken with the script, and how the press release expressed an intention to explore and contrast gender dynamics, I found myself questioning the choice to bring in Megara and material from Euripides’s Hercules. After the show, I fantasized about an alternate staging that would have incorporated a dramatization of Alcestis and Persephone’s conversation. It would have been a great moment of a woman sticking up for another woman, which would have been an elegant counterpoint to Hercules’s machismo. Persephone could have even teased Hercules that he didn’t have to go to the trouble of getting bloodied up fighting death because she was already about to fix it. To wit, Helen Farhi could have killed it as Persephone.
It was entertaining to watch Hercules’s antics, satisfying to see him portrayed with some warts, and gratifying that Alcestis eventually returned home. But ultimately the man was still the hero with all the agency, while Alcestis was the well-behaved noble woman waiting to be saved by him.
The Eclipses Group Theater’s “Hercules: In Search of a Hero,” conceived and directed by Ioanna Katsarou, continues at the Abrons Art Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 10.
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