Lydia Koniordou's staging of The Persians, Aeschylus' cautionary tragedy about a king's unsuccessful war against a country his father was unable to vanquish, brims with dazzlingly elegant and haunting stage pictures.
The play begins with a chorus of two dozen Persian elders musing on the fate of their king, Xerxes, who has led a mammoth coalition of forces into battle against Greece. As the elders speak, their chain-mail tunics (topped with capes in earth tones and blue highlights) softly rattle, underscoring the nation's militarism. Lili Kentaka designed both the costumes and the simple set: a mammoth wooden staircase that spans the stage.
Xerxes' mother, Atossa (Koniordou), arrives and describes with riveting intensity a dream that she fears foreshadows her son's defeat, as the chorus shifts up and down the staircase, often freezing off-kilter, providing a visual metaphor for how the Persians' world will be rocked.
Atossa's fears are realized when eight ashen soldiers arrive and tell of the near-complete obliteration of Xerxes' forces. Koniordou's staccato rearrangements of this octet beautifully enhance the power of their tale. Equally powerful is the arrival of King Darius (Yannis Kranas), summoned from the underworld. Bathed in blazingly white light (designer Lefteris Pavlopoulos' work is excellent throughout), Darius rises from the depths of the staircase amid a cloud of smoke and warns that Persia can never hope to defeat the Greeks.
As exceptional as Koniordou's work is in these moments, it's the play's final images that chill: the chorus shedding their cloaks and chain mail and hurling them at the feet of Xerxes, whom Christos Loulis makes compelling in his despairing defeat. With the chorus stripped of its opulence, Persia becomes a country ravaged by an unwinnable war, robbed not only of its riches but also its humanity.
Presented by the National Theatre of Greece
at City Center, 131 W. 55th St., NYC.
Sept. 16-20. Remaining performances: Mon.-Wed., 8 p.m.
(212) 581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org.