Epidaurus: Religion like no other

It began as a religious rite over 2,500 years ago. The Greater (or City) Dionysia, the festival dedicated to the Olympian god of wine, agriculture and the theater always commenced with the citizens’ procession toward the Theater of Dionysus, perched on the southern slope of the Acropolis. The social ritual of going to Epidaurus to watch performances in our own age begins in a similar way. On Friday and Saturday afternoons, Athenians get in the their cars and start heading southwest. More automobiles join the motorcade along the way, and, by the time the Argolid village of Loutra tis Oreas Elenis (Baths of Helen of Troy) is left behind, the convoy of cars winding around the mountain roads – a marked 20 kilometers of dangerous turns – are all heading for the amphitheater built by Polycleitus the Younger in the 4th century BC. Some will head for the hotels in the surrounding villages, others will rush to pitch their tents at one of the three campsites at the picturesque port of Palaia (Old) Epidaurus. The day-trippers will ensconce themselves under the shade of the pine trees at the Xenias Cafe on the theater grounds to have a bite to eat; they know that their next meal will not be until after midnight. By dusk, all will have gathered on the grounds below the sloping climb to the theater itself. Some will visit the small Epidaurus Museum near the ticket stalls – this year’s exhibition is a collection of costumes used in staging the tragedies of Aeschylus – but most will be chatting with those they knew they would meet without ever having arranged to do so beforehand. While most productions – especially since George Loukos took over as artistic director of the Greek Festival three years ago – could be considered high art, the performances at the ancient theater consistently draw the widest range of audiences over any other cultural offering in Greece. Seating more than 15,000 individuals, it is a rare night when tickets have sold out, so many make the dash for the theater at the last minute and are almost never disappointed. People who don’t go to the theater all year will catch a show at Epidaurus. Busloads of tourists who won’t understand a thing (the subtitles, when they exist, are always in Greek) come year after year. Grandmothers, little children and harried working stiffs all converge on the holy hilltop no matter what is being played; for all but the most diehard of theatergoers, the performance itself comes second to the actual experience of sitting on the still-warm stones and gazing at the green hills until the lights dim and the latest interpretation of ancient Greek tragedy and comedy is performed – always to be dissected over lamb on the spit at one of the various taverns in the village of Ligourio, and, later, at the cult discotheque Kapaki, where actors, audience members and locals mingle on the outdoor dance floor. Beginning tonight and taking place every Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m. the favorite Greek summer pastime will continue until August 22. Kicking off the fiesta is the the Cyprus Theater Organization and its interpretation of «The Clouds» by Aristophanes, with music by Stamatis Kraounakis. At the same time, the Little Epidaurus Theater, which seats around 5,000 spectators, will feature «Fragments or Simple Lessons from an Unknown Mythology,» in which the Municipal Regional Theater of Agrinio’s director Vassilis Nikolaidis has gathered fragments of lost Euripides tragedies «Hypsipyle,» «The Cretans» and «Andromeda,» among others, to create a mysterious whole. In the coming weeks, the ancients will be represented with new production of Euripides’ «Trojan Woman» and «Alcestis,» Aeschylus’ «Persians» and Aristophanes’ «Birds.» Other highlights include a Sam Mendes-directed «Winter’s Tale,» Racine’s «Phedre,» starring Helen Mirren, and Amos Gitai’s «The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness,» based on Flavius Josephus’ «The Jewish War.» The Greek Festival’s website has information on how to reach venues and ticket information.