Review: Aeschylus’ The Persians Still Resonates Today

A scene from Aeschylus' The Persians off Broadway. Photo: Courtesy of The Persians' Cast

NEW YORK – Though Aeschylus’ The Persians premiered in the City Dinoysia of Athens in 472 BCE, but it still resonates today. The play, the only surviving one in an otherwise entirely lost trilogy which one the first prize that year, is not as well-known as Aeschylus’ complete trilogy The Oresteia. The recent off Broadway production presented by the American Theatre of Actors which ran April 4-15 at the John Cullum Theatre in Manhattan led many audience members to wonder why the play is not revived more often.

The production, with Artistic Director James Jennings and directed by John DeBenedetto vividly brought the ancient play to life with a solid cast. The emotionally charged play recounts the Persians’ response to their defeat by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, the decisive moment in the Persian War, allowing the cast to display their skills to great effect. The moving and often graphic descriptions of the aftermath of the battle highlighted the talent of each performer.

Aristotle thought the play was sympathetic to the defeated Persians, but Aristophanes saw it as a celebration of Greece’s victory in an ongoing war. Either way, the resonance of the play for audiences from ancient times to the present remained, and remains, strong, especially in view of the continuing conflicts around the world. It highlights the humanity of the people who the original audience would have seen as the “enemy.” The “us against them” mentality doesn’t hold up very well if we can identify with the characters as human beings who are suffering.

A scene from Aeschylus’ The Persians off Broadway with Anthony Paglia as the Herald. Photo: Courtesy of The Persians’ Cast

The dynamic cast included Shaun Melady as Xerxes, Sonya Rice as Queen Atossa, Richard Barreto as the Ghost of King Darius, and Anthony Paglia as the Herald. The Persian officials, deftly portrayed by Elliot Wesley, Charlie Akre, and Nick Kennedy, act as the Chorus and open the play, drawing us into the tragedy. Rice as Atossa, the widow of Darius and mother of Xerxes, conveyed the powerful emotions of her role with her impressive performance. Barreto offered a commanding stage presence befitting his kingly role, even though the king was a ghost. Melady gave a compelling performance as Xerxes struggling to come to terms with his defeat.

The revival reminds us of the constancy of human nature and the paired down set and staging allowed the actors and Aeschylus’ timeless text to shine.

The American Theatre of Actors was founded in 1976 by James Jennings, who continues as its President and Artistic Director. It is a repertory theatre company consisting of 50 actors, 20 playwrights and 10 directors. Its purpose is to promote the development of new playwrights, directors and actors and provide them a creative atmosphere in which to work without thepressures of commercial theatre. The plays are dramas and comedies dealing with the social and ethical problems of contemporary society. Over 800 new works have been presented and more than 8,000 actors have worked at ATA, including Dennis Quaid, Bruce Willis, Danny Aiello, Chazz Palminteri, William Fichtner, and Edie Falco.

A scene from Aeschylus’ The Persians off Broadway. Photo: Courtesy of The Persians’ Cast
Anthony Paglia and Sonya Rice in a scene from Aeschylus’ The Persians off Broadway. Photo: Courtesy of The Persians’ Cast
A scene from Aeschylus’ The Persians off Broadway with Richard Barreto and Sonya Rice. Photo: Courtesy of The Persians’ Cast
Shaun Melady as Xerxes with the Persian officials played by Elliot Wesley, Charlie Akre, and Nick Kennedy. Photo: Courtesy of The Persians’ Cast
A scene from Aeschylus’ The Persians off Broadway with Sonya Rice as Atossa and the Persian officials played by Elliot Wesley, Charlie Akre, and Nick Kennedy. Photo: Courtesy of The Persians’ Cast