Admetus, a husband to die for

Exiled from Mount Olympus for killing a Cyclops favored by Zeus, Apollo whiled away the time serving as a shepherd to the hospitable King Admetus of Thessaly. The god developed such a fondness for the fun-loving king that he first aided him in yoking a lion and a bear to a chariot to win the hand of Alcestis, and then, when Admetus made the mortal error of forgetting to make the required sacrifice to Apollo’s sister, Artemis, Apollo intoxicated the Fates and persuaded them to spare the life of his friend. The Fates agree to let Admetus off the hook, but, in return, demand that another soul take his place. Admetus assumes that his elderly parents will grant him this favor – but, to his surprise, they refuse. Luckily for him, his young wife cannot imagine life without her husband and offers herself to Hades. Admetus allows her to make the sacrifice, promising to never bring another woman into his home. However, he breaks that promise on the very day of her funeral, after being pressed by Hercules to accept a veiled stranger. Fortunately, his good friend Hercules, who has wrestled with Death and won, has actually brought Admetus his own wife back from the dead. Heavy on irony, Euripides’ earliest surviving play was presented in 438 BC and can be dubbed the first-ever dramatic comedy. Taking the place of a satyr play in the proceedings (in addition to the three tragedies presented by a playwright in the Greater Dionysia drama competition, a burlesque play with a lewd chorus made up of satyrs was also required), Euripides presented the tragicomedy «Alcestis» instead. Much like modern situation comedies, the characters in «Alcestis» are dead serious; it is how the characters are played that brings laughs – or not. Last Saturday at Epidaurus, in his directorial debut at the ancient amphitheater, Thomas Moschopoulos attempted to highlight both the tragic and comic characteristics of the play in a tongue-in-cheek production inspired by ancient Greek friezes, religious Renaissance music and modern video art. The performance began with the sound of a beating heart. The palace set, designed by Elli Papageorgakopoulou, was reminiscent of the new Acropolis Museum. The prologue, in which Apollo attempts to barter with Death, was an exceptional sequence, where video projections (by Nancy Biniadaki) of ancient Greek sculptures superimposed with the actors’ faces framed a quivering Alcestis (Maria Skoula) covered with white body paint and a pleated white dress. A figure with a bow and arrow stood for Apollo, and a shape-shifting black mass that was Death slithered into the palace to collect his bounty. The chorus included classical singers and was backed by a five-piece orchestra playing atonal music written by Cornelius Selamsis. Dressed in black business suits and holding ticking metronomes, they wandered across the furrowed soil at a loss: Should they mourn, or not? A maidservant (played by a charming Maria Protopappa) comes out listing the virtues of their Queen, whose time is up. Before the chorus, Alcestis and the overblown Admetus (Christos Loulis, relishing his role) perform a half-sung, half-spoken duet where Euripides’ biting satire is on full display, as Admetus bewails his fate, and Alcestis gently reminds him that she is sacrificing herself for his sake. Enthusiastically applauded by the audience were the crowd-pleasing roles of the drunk, boorish Hercules (an excellent Argyris Xafis) and Pheres, Admetus’s father (an outstanding Costas Berikopoulos). Between the two of them, they show the hypocritical nature of Admetus’s adherence to the traditions of hospitality and devotion to his wife.In its best moments, the production, whose stylized movement was choreographed by Martha Kloukina, recalled the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, where works of art came to life. However, the rapid changes of tone, from funny to serious, sometimes did not gel – especially when the formerly flamboyant Admetus, who had even prepped his children as to how to act and when to cry, became serious and sensitive during his lament. As always when this play ends, the audience is left wondering what Alcestis will say to her husband when her three days of silence are up; knowing his luck, she will most likely offer to die for him all over again. «Alcestis» will be on tour all summer, visiting Cyprus’s Ancient Odeon at Paphos on July 25, and Nicosia’s Makarios III Amphitheater on July 27. In August, it will play at open-air theaters in Nea Makri, Ioannina, Olympia, Samos, Kavala and Argos. For more information, visit