Although Thornton Wilder may be America’s most produced playwright due to his Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town, his final completed play, The Alcestiad, is only now getting its New York stage premiere, courtesy of Magis Theatre Company. (The outdoor production at FDR Four Freedoms State Park on Roosevelt Island had been postponed from last summer due to Covid.)
First produced at the 1955 Edinburgh Festival under the direction of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, under the title A Life in the Sun, the play was deemed a failure and Wilder withdrew the English language rights for the rest of his life. There are many explanations for its failure: the Scottish theater was the size of a barn, Guthrie’s production was overwhelmed by pageantry to fill up the large stage and venue, and the huge Edinburgh Festival success the previous summer of Guthrie’s production of Wilder’s The Matchmaker may have given audiences and critics expectations of another farcical comedy which was not to be.
In any case, Wilder did not give up on the play and revised it for a 1957 German production at the Zurich Festival which was a critical success. Nor did he lose interest in the material but used it again for an opera libretto to music by modernist composer Louise Talma which premiered in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 2, 1962, which was a success with audiences but not the critics. However, the play with emendations from the German stage premiere was not published in English until 1977, two years after Wilder’s death.
An acting edition was released in 1980 which led to the first professional U.S. production at the Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, Ohio in the summer of 1984. A new Samuel French acting edition was released on May 19, 2014 with a staged reading by Red Bull Theater at Playwrights Horizons with the attendance of A. Tappan Wilder, Wilder’s nephew and executor. The cast of featured actors includes Michael Cerveris, Clifton Duncan, Laura Esterman, Enid Graham, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Sam Tsoutsouvas and Paxton Whitehead.
The fact that the play has had so checkered a past should suggest that it is a difficult work. The Magis Theatre production directed by George Drance, the company’s artistic director who also appears as the god Apollo and the prophet Tiresias, makes it quite clear that the play veers between comedy and tragedy and needs subtle staging. Wilder’s original subtitle was “a play of questions” and the completed script is very much indebted to his reading of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The play’s serious themes include humanism, the relationship of humans to the divine, and the meaning of life.
The original Edinburgh production used a cast of 21 actors plus multiple extras as servants at the palace of King Admetus and people of Thessaly. The Magis production is cast with 13 actors with eight doubling for a total of 23 roles. While the production uses no set, it takes place on the white marble terrace before a row of four magnificent matching trees which stand in front of the ruins of the Smallpox Hospital still visible in Four Freedoms Park.
The form of the play is straight from classical Greek drama as we understand it today: three plays and a farcial satyr comedy to round out the evening. Its roots are in Euripides’ Alcestis, the only surviving Greek play on this myth. Wilder’s The Alcestiad is in three acts placing the material from Euripides in the second act, creating a prologue 12 years prior on the eve of Princess Alcestis’ marriage to King Admetus of Thessaly, and an original epilogue 12 years later after Admetus’ death. This is followed by the satyr play, “The Drunken Sisters,” in which the god Apollo who appears in all three acts of The Alcestiad tricks the three Fates. Wilder later expanded this short play as the Gluttony episode in his seven play one-act cycle, The Seven Deadly Sins. Although the name of the satyr play, “The Drunken Sisters,” appears on the poster for the current production, Magis Theatre Company has chosen not to include it.
The Greek myth of Alcestis is not as well-known as many of the other stories used in Greek tragic drama. King Admetus of Thessaly has won the hand of Princess Alcestis of Iocolus but after the wedding he forgets to make the required offering to the goddess Artemis, which brings an omen of an early death. The god Apollo who was being punished by Zeus to be a herdsman to Admetus for one year gets the Fates drunk and obtains a promise that someone else may die in Admetus’ place. When the time comes no one will sacrifice themselves including his parents, but his loyal wife Alcestis chooses to die for him. As the palace is making the funeral rites, Hercules comes on his annual visit and rather than send him away which would be a breach of hospitality, Admetus decrees that no one shall tell the roustabout what is happening. When he discovers the truth, he is so distraught that he vows to wrestle Death and return Alcestis to her life and her husband. Alcestis is the only character in Greek mythology who is able to return from Hades.
The first act of Wilder’s play takes place on the eve of Alcestis’ marriage, and is an encounter between Apollo, the god of the sun, and Death, who debate whether humans and dieties can understand one another. Tiresias the prophet arrives with a message of both an honor and a peril and introduces four herdsmen, one of whom is Apollo in disguise. While Alcestis is reluctant to go through with her marriage as she wishes to be a priestess to Apollo, she is convinced not to do so.
The second act is the day of Admetus’ death. A message from Delphi arrives with the news that someone else can die in his place. Alcestis keeps Admetus from getting the message and she arranges to offer herself as the required sacrifice. Hercules’ drunk arrival interrupts her funeral ceremonies, but Admetus keeps the news from him. When he accidentally discovers what has happened, contritely he takes it upon himself to best Death and bring her back.
The third act (not based on a previous Greek story) takes place 12 years later and appears to be influenced by Sophocles’ Oedipus The King and Antigone, as well as Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. Admetus has been deposed by the tyrant Agis and Alcestis has been made a slave in the palace. However, a plague has stricken the city, and Agis has blamed Alcestis who is the only person to have returned from the underworld. When her son Epimenes returns to kill Agis, Alcestis dissuades him just as she dissuades Agis from attempting to repeat Hercules’ journey down to Hades when his daughter dies of the plague. Apollo and Death reappear for what is taken as a happy ending to the story of Alcestis.
Aside from the unevenness of the acting, Drance’s production has no consistent tone, shifting from comedy to drama to tragedy and back again. Not all of his interesting ideas are carried through: the first two acts have different performers playing Admetus and Alcestis which demonstrates the shift of 12 years; however, in the third act when Alcestis should be an old woman, the same actress who played her in her prime continues in the part.
While the costumes by Gian Marco Riccardo Lo Forte and Mark Tambella are serviceable they are rather bland and unprepossessing. The uncredited sound design and the original music by Sara Galassini are muddy and unclear as broadcast from the one speaker on the left side of the audience. While there is no lighting design as the play is performed in broad daylight at this time of year starting at 7 PM, by the time the play is ending it is twilight and the fading light will make it painful for some viewers.
Best is Drance himself as the dignified Apollo, god of the sun, and as the almost senile and comic prophet Tiresias. As Aglaia, the old nurse, Rachel Benbow Murdy is quite amusing but knows when to tone it down when the play becomes serious. Russ Cusick is fine as the dying Admetus in Act Two but he seems to be in a different play than the other actors.
The other actors seem either to have too little experience or to be miscast. As the young Princess Alcestis, Mae Roney is too emotive and intense for a character who has so much self-awareness. She is however, much more convincing as Cheriander who accompanies Epimenes, son of Alcestis and Admetus, back to his parents’ former kingdom. Playing the somewhat older Alcestis in the second and third acts, Margi Sharp Douglas is rather wooden and heavy-handed as the title character.
Her suitor, King Admetus played by Tony Macht is rather callow, though he is much better as Epimenes when he appears in the third act. Kimbirdlee Fadner’s Death is too hysterical to be someone with so much power, even though bested by Apollo. She ought to be more angry. Gabriel Portuondo displays an impressive physique as Hercules though the costume designer has chosen to cover it up with a yellow fur jacket. However, his antic behavior does not suggest a drunken brawler but an unruly child which unbalances the play.
In smaller roles, Jack Fadner as the Boy who accompanies Tiresias has just the right ironic touch, while Joan Marie as Rhodope, the palace servant enamored of Hercules, is excellent as someone overcome by hero worship. As the tyrant Agis in the last act, Diego Andrés Tapia gives solid support though he does not revel in his dictatorial powers.
The Magis Theatre Company’s New York premiere of Thornton Wilder’s The Alcestiad is a worthy experiment and they should be commended for taking on this difficult and rarely staged play. Unfortunately, in performance it appears to be beyond their resources at this time to bring it off successfully. And without Wilder’s last act of the satyr play, “The Drunken Sisters,” it is difficult to assess the play’s total effect.
The Alcestiad (June 18 – 20, 2021 at 7:00 – 8:30 PM)
Magis Theatre Company
FDR Four Freedoms State Park, Roosevelt Island, New York City
Admission is free but reservations are required.
For tickets, visit http://www.magistheatre.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Cushions are suggested as the audience sits on a marble staircase of narrow steps.
The production is being presented in compliance with current AEA Covid guidelines and regulations.