Human, all too human in love

“So, it was a mistake. Kissing, biting / Where’s the difference? When we truly love / It’s easy to do one when we mean the other.» Penthesilea laments over the dead body of Achilles, her lover, which lies covered in blood on the scorched earth of Troy. When she realizes what she has done, Penthesilea kills herself in an act of atonement. This is where the tragic drama penned by Heinrich von Kleist in 1808 reaches its climax. This is where Peter Stein’s innovative direction reached its climax too. In a much-touted event, Stein presented the world premiere of «Penthesilea» at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus on Friday and Saturday. Attendance was rather poor but the audience gave the performance a hearty round of applause. And not without good reason. Stein had taken on the challenge of staging a difficult and dark play that was originally written (in German) for an indoor venue and which, hence, required imagination and daring innovations. And he succeeded. The cast was led by Maddalena Crippa, Stein’s wife, in the role of Penthesilea. Her Italian compatriot Graziano Piazza played Achilles. The production’s set design was by the acclaimed Dionysis Fotopoulos, a regular collaborator of Stein’s. Sixteen local actresses were part of the play’s 32-member chorus. Costumes were designed by Oscar award-winner Franca Scuarciapino. Arturo Annecchino is credited with the music and Andre Gingras, the choreography. Stein’s «Penthesilea» is a co-production of the Athens-based Attiki Cultural Society, Change Performing Arts, and the festivals of Syracuse, Merida, and Carnuntum. A series of European performances are set to follow. The twist In «Penthesilea,» one of the post-Homeric legends, the queen of the Amazons fights for Troy against the Greeks following the death of Hector. According to the myth, Penthesilea was slain by Achilles, the famous Greek warrior, who, at the moment of her death, realizes she is a woman and suddenly falls for her. A distinctively romantic writer, Kleist twists the original myth, giving it a whole new dimension. The drama takes off in a chain of events which unfold from the moment Achilles strikes the woman, this time not killing her but, instead, leaving her unconscious and stripped of reason. The queen’s recovery is followed by emotional crises, passionate outbursts, and misunderstandings which finally underscore «the fatal potential of love,» as Stein has it. This is where Kleist departs from the initial myth. Stein, for his part, made his own innovations – some more successful than others. First, he translated the play from German into Italian – a difficult task given Kleist’s poetic and stylized language. Still, an odd experience for a Greek audience. And often a painful one too: The screen projection of Greek subtitles to the left and right of the stage meant that one had to sacrifice either some of the dialogue, or the action. And it may well have left some aching necks among the spectators, especially those sitting at the sides of the stage. On stage, the action took place on an unusual, some would say beautiful, set – a plain and modern one, like the overwhelming helicopter sound heralding the approach of the Trojan army, or the bare metal structure which stood behind the stage supporting the dozens of lights which highlighted the action – sometimes almost dazzling the audience. Still, most of the time, the lights were cast on Fotopoulos’s set: a black slope, the torched landscape of war-ravaged Troy. Indeed, a beautiful contrast with the red roses later scattered by the virginal Amazons in preparation for their upcoming celebration. Stein’s second innovation was the addition of a female chorus of Amazons, which brought the play closer to ancient tragedy and, as the Berlin-born director noted, made the play more suitable for an open venue like the Epidaurus theater. Lacking any text, Kleist introduced a score with sounds, choreography and music – a certainly moving one. «Tan, katan, tan,» with whispers, joyful cheers, or primitive cries a restless group of Amazons in powerful leather garments and aggressive makeup played a central role in the play, highlighting the action, commenting on it, before, ultimately, becoming its victim. Destructive desire «Penthesilea» encapsulates the madness of love. The play accomplishes this with a series of reversed roles between the two main heroes, in a succession of ambiguous circumstances where each tries to subjugate the other. Using the Amazon myth, Kleist, and, in turn, Stein, depicts the eternal conflict between the two sexes. Under the law of the Amazons, sex is only allowed for the purpose of reproduction. Each woman must meet the father of her child in battle, defeat him, and take him prisoner. The «sacred orgies» are organized on the «night of the roses.» After the feast, the captives are released laden with gifts. When Penthesilea meets Achilles in battle, she immediately falls in love with him – which is against Amazon law. The legendary warrior brings her down with a merciless blow. When she opens her eyes before the man, who is already in love with her, she is misled into believing that he is her captive. Achilles knows that the only way to be with her is to subjugate himself to her will. He pretends to be her captive and offers himself to her. When she realizes she has been deluded she is thrown into confusion. She accepts Achilles’ challenge to face him in a single duel. A complacent, almost naive Achilles (the audience seemed to enjoy his playful remarks and «cool» style) shows up disarmed – both literally and metaphorically – ready to go down in accordance with Amazon law. Penthesilea, however, is filled with anger. She cannot understand why he wants to fight with her when she has offered him all her love. In a pitiless blow, we are told, she cuts his throat, sets her lethal dogs on him, and, in an act of cannibalism, she tears his flesh with her teeth. Erotic conflict; spontaneous, violent action; conquest and subjugation; master and slave: Kleist’s depiction of the Greek world is profoundly Nietzschean in character. The dying man «touches her and cries: ‘Penthesilea! My bride! What are you doing? Is this the rosy feast you promised me?’» When Penthesilea realizes her crime, she begins to lament over the dead body of her lover (one of the high points in the performance by the Italian actress), now blanketed with roses, before committing suicide. Her blind passion has destroyed her lover, herself, and the entire Amazon society. Penthesilea laments before allowing for the eventual catharsis: «How many a girl, her soft arms fast entwined / About her man’s neck, says she loves him so / Beyond words, she could eat him up for love… I did it word for word; it was no pretending / I was not quite so mad as they would have it.»