Thursday, January 26, 2006

Tiresias the Harlot at 6th @ Penn: Flawed Greek Pastiche

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

Give the folks at 6th @ Penn Theatre in Hillcrest credit not only for running shows seven days a week — presenting one production on the prime theatergoing days, Thursday through Sunday, but another on the traditionally “dark” nights of Monday through Wednesday — and also reawakening San Diego to the dark beauties and undying insights of the classic plays of ancient Greece. Alas, their “dark night” productions and interest in all things Greek take a bit of a wrong turn with Tiresias the Harlot, a sporadically compelling but overlong original pastiche by modern-day playwright Edwin Eigner that uses an ancient Greek setting and characters to tell a story of modern-day sexual politics.

Years before this play begins, Tiresias (Hilary White) was a hero, a companion of Jason on the quest for the Golden Fleece, and engaged to marry the virginal Marpessa (Wendy Savage). Then he happened to catch a glimpse of the goddess Athena skinny-dipping. She caught him and, furious, changed him into a woman — thereby establishing herself as the world’s first gender-reassignment surgeon. Making the best of a bad deal, Tiresias became a high-class prostitute, selling herself to (among others) the warrior Idas (Eric Trigg). Eigner’s script deals with Marpessa’s search for her former fianc√©, her understandable shock at finding out what’s happened to him (her), and the dark motives of her traveling companion (Tom Hoeck), who represented himself as “Adrastos” but who is really the insatiably horny sun god Apollo.

At a shorter length (like about an hour) and with fewer vertiginous plot twists, Tiresias the Harlot might have been more entertaining and achieved the wry commentary on sexual mores then and now Eigner seems to have intended. Alas, at 90 minutes (10 minutes longer than 6th @ Penn’s current — and marvelous — “bright nights” production of a genuine Greek play, Sophocles’ Ajax) it really starts to pall well before it ends. It doesn’t help that Eigner puts some of his characters, Marpessa in particular, through some barely believable changes, or that he invokes the old deus ex machina gimmick — a god steps on stage to resolve the dilemmas of the human characters — so relentlessly that by the end we don’t know which gods are involved in the action or what their agendas are.

It’s a pity the play isn’t more worthy of its production. Director Raab Rashi, the mastermind behind the “Instant Theatre” productions at 6th @ Penn (in which a group of volunteers are randomly assigned to groups and charged with writing, casting, rehearsing and performing original short plays in a 24-hour period), does his best to keep the show from getting dull by pacing it quickly and getting energetic performances from his principals. Hilary White never convinces us she’s Transgender but otherwise delivers an eloquent performance in the title role. The other women in the cast, Savage as Marpessa and Sherri Allen as Pythia, do the best they can with their highly stereotyped roles — innocent virgin and crazy prophetess, respectively.

The men fare better. Eric Trigg is properly hunky and swaggering as Idas, particularly powerful when the script calls for him to attempt to rape Marpessa. Tom Hoeck stands out even more; his rather airy attitude and tall, clean-shaven, blond good looks make him seem properly otherworldly and believable as a god. Costume designer Kandice Guzman deserves credit for doing convincing “Greek” on a budget, as does lighting designer Elvira Perez for figuring out effects that make all the supernatural interventions at least somewhat credible. The sets are mostly recycled from the Ajax production and serve the action well. No prop person is credited, but the weapons — Idas’s straight dagger, Apollo’s twisty one, and the bows they are issued for their climactic duel — are solid and believable.

6th @ Penn usually deserves credit for doing the best they can with what they have, both in picking scripts and producing them. This time, they’re having “off” nights in more ways than one. If you’re an insatiable live theatre addict, Tiresias the Harlot might be worth seeing — but if you only have the money and time for one of 6th @ Penn’s current shows, Ajax should be your choice.

Tiresias the Harlot plays at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, through Monday, February 6. Performances are at 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays. Tickets are $15 for all performances ($12 for students and seniors and $15 for members of the Actors’ Alliance). For reservations or information, please call (619) 688-9210 or visit