Aspects of Chinese opera and Greek tragedy come together with a modern spin in a new play in a Yale School of Drama student’s new production of a classical tale.
“Alcestis,” the tragic comedy by Euripides, opened to a full house at the University Theatre Tuesday night. The show is an adaptation by Ted Hughes that mixes modern elements with the more traditional Greek style.
“It’s a Greek play written in 1940s English,” said Rosemary Strub, Drama School show administrator. “It’s exciting to see how people are listening and reacting to the text.”
Alec Tok DRA ’03, the director of the play, said while he is not sure whether this modern spin will make the play more accessible to younger generations in particular, he does think the language of the play makes it easier for everyone to understand.
“Its in good, simple, subtle English,” said Tok. “There were people from Iceland, China, and all over the world who loved it. It’s very understandable even for people who don’t speak English very well.”
Tok, a native of Singapore, said he originally wanted to direct a Chinese operatic piece but could not find a good enough translation.
“I almost had a nervous breakdown when I had to choose a play for my thesis,” he said. “But I read the first eight lines of the play and that was it. It appealed to me in an emotional way.”
He added that many aspects of the play are similar to traditional Chinese opera, including the over-the-top characters and the play’s bordering on the melodramatic.
The production preserves the classic ideas of Greek theater — three cast members function as the chorus — but adds in a bit of the absurd with comic relief in the form of the clownish Heracles. Modern language is used and costumes were designed to resemble a 1940s style, to reflect the time period in which Hughes wrote, Strub said.
The play deals with the heart-wrenching decisions King Admetos must make when he is offered a chance to evade death by arranging to have a family member die early in his place. His wife, the title character, is the only person willing to make that sacrifice. Ideas of love, obligation and selflessness pervade the play, especially those concerning family.
Strub said Hughes’ motivation behind the adaptation of “Alcestis” may have been his grief over the suicide of his wife, the mentally unstable author Sylvia Plath.
“People blamed him for her death because he was sleeping around on her,” she said. “[The play] was his way of dealing with those demons.”
As a third-year student at the Yale School of Drama, Tok was given the opportunity to choose his own project. He said this particular adaptation of the play gave him more freedom to create his own vision for the show.
“It I had done a more known and more done translation, it would have been more colored by previous productions,” he said. “this gave me more of a chance to draft my own draft.”
Victoria Nolan, managing director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the School of Drama said Tok’s is the first of four productions of the year scheduled to be directed by third-year students.
“The students are so involved with everything,” she said. “It’s a really exciting time around here.”
Performances will run through Nov. 2 and tickets range in price from $15-$18.