Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 42 / 19 October 2017
 

Achilles & Patroclus 4ever

Theatre


JD Scalzo, left, and Ed Berkeley portray contemporary characters inspired by Greek mythology in "warplay," having its world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema
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Along a river, a traveling carnival sets up shop with rickety rides and music from a rock group reduced to playing second-tier gigs. Its sing-along hit was "Come Sail Away," and while the name of the group is never mentioned, pop-savvy theatergoers will catch the significance of the song choice. It was performed by Styx, a name derived from the river running between the living and the dead in Greek mythology. The river that will eventually separate two men bound by an overpowering love may not be named, but you don't have to be steeped in Greek mythology to understand what it represents.

In JC Lee's intriguing "warplay," having a stylish world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center, which commissioned it, characters derived from Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's "The Iliad" are brought into the modern world – except that it's a woozy variation on the world we all explore daily. Characters identified only as "A" and "P" know about computers, automobiles, rock music, and even contemporary jargon. "You keep stifling me," P says to A, who will henceforth be identified as Patroclus and Achilles for the sake of clarity. Achilles is definitely the alpha in this relationship, exuding quiet self-confidence and a sense of entitlement while trying to mentor the flighty, rambunctious, and often whiny Patroclus.

At the start of the play, in a sort of "Waiting for Godot" wasteland, they're on route to some sort of sports game that Achilles feels obligated to play in, and which Patroclus wants no part of. It's his duty, Achilles believes, to toughen up Patroclus for coming games that he knows will become life-and-death affairs. "You're being a complete fucking pussy about this," are the first words spoken in the play when Achilles admonishes Patroclus for his squeamish reluctance to kill a rabbit. Patroclus then accuses Achilles of "toxic masculinity," but that he will soon enough envy. 

The playwright keeps the audience off-kilter as realities collide and shift, as these competitive friends, whose bond has been frequently interpreted over the centuries as sexually romantic, spar physically and philosophically. In Homer's world, the gods would preordain events, and in Lee's play, the characters are unsure if such a thing as free will exists, how much of what we do are animalistic instincts, and are we hard-wired into genetic bonds.

Director Ben Randle has found stylish ways to render the complicated world of these two characters, making agile use of Devin Kasper's set evoking a dystopian landscape that Christian V. Majia's lighting and Theodore J.H. Hulsker's projections further enhance, with Hulsker also providing an increasingly ominous sound design.

As Achilles, Ed Berkeley projects a calm, understated bravado that rankles Patroclus, whom JD Scalzo portrays with a flamboyant overflow of both attraction and resentment. "You've never had to earn love," Patroclus tells Achilles, who indeed believes he possesses an irresistible glow. Even hotdog vendors give him free franks.

The play runs a little more than 90 intermissionless minutes, and when the end comes, Lee pushes all rancor and injury aside for a moment of sweet transcendence. The folly of war is not a lesson being taught here, but the importance of expressing love before it's too late is a message that comes across clearly.

 

"warplay" will run through July 2 at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Tickets are $25-$50. Call (415) 861-8972 or go to nctcsf.org.

 






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