By Moira Buffini. Directed by Brian Parkinson. A United Players production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Thursday, April 2. Continues until April 19
Neither Moira Buffini’s play nor director Brian Parkinson’s production of Welcome to Thebes is completely successful, but both are consistently—and admirably—serious about what they’re doing.
In Buffini’s reworking of classical Greek characters and stories, Thebes becomes a contemporary Third-World city-state. Eurydice, its newly elected leader, is struggling to establish democracy in the aftermath of a civil war in which the brutalities included cannibalism.
Eurydice came to prominence through her involvement in a feminist antiwar movement—much like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became president of Liberia in 2006—and she talks a good line about her government’s peace-and-reconciliation commission. But when her brother, Polynices, is found dead, Eurydice insists that his body be left to rot: there’ll be no burial for him. Polynices was a warlord and Eurydice holds him responsible for the death of one of her sons and the blinding of another. She is motivated by revenge.
Meanwhile, Theseus, the first citizen of Athens, is visiting Thebes. Basically, Theseus is the worst aspects of the United States, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund all rolled into one entitled politician. Theseus delivers condescending speeches about democratic improvement while figuring out how he can make money from suffering.
As if Eurydice weren’t busy enough, Prince Tydeus, an unrepentant warlord and known rapist, is fomenting counterrevolution.
So there’s a lot going on and the stakes are high. Because we’re familiar with the play’s terms—including rape as a war crime and the brutalization of child soldiers—and because democracy is increasingly under threat from militarism, including that of Prime Minister Harper, the script exerts considerable pull.
Still, in the early going, Welcome to Thebes is too simple to be deeply engaging. Basically, Eurydice is good and Theseus is bad. In Act 1, the only significant shading is Eurydice’s desire for revenge, and even that isn’t fully explored. By the time Eurydice catches on to herself in Act 2—“This is the match that lights my own destruction”—the audience is way ahead of her.
That said, under Brian Parkinson’s direction, the actors’ commitment keeps the evening impressively well focused. Playing Eurydice, MariaLuisa Alvarez brings a persuasive combination of intelligence, tenderness, and gravitas. I also particularly enjoyed the incisiveness of Mandana Namazi’s Foreign Minister Aglaea, and Rema Kibayi’s charismatic Prince Tydeus.
In Act 1, I found Jordan Navratil’s Theseus showy but, in Act 2, the character’s breakdown cracked my heart open. And, thematically, the second act deepens as the characters engage in more complex emotional and political negotiations.
Ultimately, Welcome to Thebes is worth seeing. It’s also a madly ambitious project: this production has a racially diverse cast of 26. Under the artistic direction of Andrée Karas, ambition has long been a hallmark of United Players, which is a semiprofessional company. For decades, Karas has been bringing important art to Vancouver and providing much-needed opportunities for artists. If I had a lifetime achievement award to give out right now, I’d give it to her.