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“Behind Every Great Man Is an Even Greater Woman!”
The University of Utah Department of Theatre Celebrates
The 40th Annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival
with Euripides’ Tragicomedy Alcestis
Decades ago when Dr. James Svendsen conceived of the Classical Greek Theatre Festival, he never envisioned that it would last this long or be this successful. But this year, Svendsen and the University of Utah Department of Theatre celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Classical Greek Theatre Festival with Euripides’ extraordinary tragicomedy Alcestis. Directed by Hugh Hanson, and with an original score and songs by inspired local composer Cathy Neff, this innovative production will be presented at the stunning Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre at 9:00 AM on September 18, 19, 25 and 26.
Alcestis explores the powerful themes of sacrifice and rebirth. The Fates have granted King Admetos the privilege of living past his time. But the gift comes at a price—he must find someone willing to take his place when Death comes to take him. His wife Alcestis, not wishing her children to be fatherless, volunteers to go in his stead. In a cowardly fashion, Admetos allows her to do so. Only after he admits his weakness does his friend Heracles come to the rescue.
Alcestis is unique among extant Greek plays. “With this play, Euripides was extremely inventive and daring in his innovations,” says Svendsen. “Alcestis is unlike any other classic Greek play in so many ways. First, it is a tragicomedy. All other Greek plays are either tragedies or comedies or satyr plays. With Alcestis we have an entirely new style of Greek drama—one that is ahead of its time—where moments of great sorrow are intermingled with moments of levity. There is a delicate balance between the two.” Director Hugh Hanson agrees. “It is a challenge, going back and forth between the comedic and dramatic elements,” Hanson says. “It’s like walking a tightrope between the two. You can’t go too far in either direction; otherwise you might lose the audience. I love the challenge.”
Alcestis also differs from other Greek plays in that Death actually appears on stage. Additionally, in most Greek dramas characters die offstage, and sometimes we see the bodies later. In Alcestis, however, the title character dies on stage, and we watch as Death takes her to the Underworld. It is a shocking moment.
“Euripides wrote strong female characters with major roles in his plays,” says Hanson. “This is a story about a strong, intelligent and good woman who does what she does because she understands what is at stake if she doesn’t. She lives in a world that is largely patriarchal, and she understands what the loss of the king will do to the country, and what the loss of her children’s father will have on their lives.”
Hanson is no stranger to directing plays about strong women. Having recently directed Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the University of Utah, he says that the fight for women’s equal rights continues, and he sees a lot of contemporary parallels in this play. “Many people mistake Alcestis’ sacrifice for weakness, but I don’t see that. Alcestis is revered in this play for her kindness and her intelligence. She understands that her children would lose their protection if their father was gone. It is the love of her husband, and her family, and her selfless nature that makes her sacrifice pure, for she gains no reward. A man can go to war and sacrifice himself and the whole world sees him as a hero. But this is one instance in theatrical literature where a woman is considered a hero, and I loved that.”
This years’ Greek show feels decidedly different from last year’s modern rock-version of the Bakkhai. Svendsen reminds us of one of the strengths of the festival: “We look at each year’s play as an individual work and present it in a new and fresh way.” Hanson adds that “the subject matter of this play dictates a different approach.”
Helping to set the tone and tell the story of Alcestis is the music created by local composer Cathy Neff. “This show could almost be called Alcestis: The Musical because of the amount of music and its integral nature to this particular production,” says Svendsen. “Music was always a part of ancient Greek productions. But in ancient times, every song was new. There was never what we know today as ‘reprises,’ or even the repeat of a theme. Each choral ode and each aria was different. Cathy has really achieved this same idea with her music, and she’s written 19 songs for the show.” Neff says that she felt “very inspired by Euripides’ lyrics, and I think I was able to capture a unique flavor for each song.”
Svendsen, who also serves as the show’s production dramaturg, learns something new from each production. “The best day of the year for me is the first day of rehearsal for the Greek show. It is so exciting when we get the director, the designers, and the marvelous actors from the Department of Theatre’s Actor Training Program in the same room and begin our journey. I’ve seen hundreds of productions of Greek theatre all over the world, but nothing compares to the productions we do here at the University of Utah. There’s also something special about performing at Red Butte Amphitheatre. It is a beautiful space, and to be outside, experiencing theatre the way that Greek theatre was intended to be performed, is something very special.”
The Festival’s partnership to the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre is one of the most unique in the nation. In addition, the University of Utah’s Greek Theatre Festival tours to Weber State University and BYU. It is performed for thousands of theatre-goers and students across disciplines state-wide.
The 40th Annual Greek Theatre Festival Production of Alcestis will be performed September 18, 19, 25, and 26 at the Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre at 9:00 AM. Dr. James Svendsen will conduct pre-show discussion before each show at 8:30 AM. Tickets are available through the Red Butte Garden ticket office at 801-585-0556, or online at www.redbuttegarden.org
Publicity photos will be available online beginning September 8 at www.theatre.utah.edu/press