I loawethed Philoktetes, which is to say that John Jesurun's production, getting a US premiere 14 years after it was written, sent me into a simultaneous spasm of awe and loathing. Awe because Jesurun simply writes engaging poetry: seething rants of verse-cum-curse that come in waves of a playful prosody that sustains long thoughts in short sentences bedazzled by common patois and modern jargon ("His head hit a bullet. Habeus corpus, a talking corpse.") Loathing because Jesurun's fanciful production seems as lost at sea as the roundabout, nothing-for-granted script: his twin screens project images above the center of the stage and on the floor itself, but this eerie superimposition of natural disasters (cyclones, thunderstorms) or calm visual "white noise" (rain-flecked water) doesn't connect with the rambling text.
That the show provokes two distinct feelings from me at the same time is no surprise: one of the central themes of Philoktetes is in the duality of being and non-being; we've all seen the unreliable narrator before, but in a revealingly meta moment, Philoktetes introduces himself in the third person and explains that he'll "give the clue, then the story, then the real story. First what they saw, then what was seen, then what was. The cadaver will direct the autopsy, a talking corpse narrating, a dead horse talking, a dead foot walking. Philoktetes is dead." This, more or less, is what follows: segmented scenes, carefully broken up by choreographed silences, that give the show the semblance of linearity, even was it falls into chaos.
It would be as easy to simply call Philoktetes mad as it would be to make him a representation of the AIDS epidemic: after all, he's been alone on the island of Lemnos for ten years, abandoned by his trusted leader and friend, Odysseus, because of a horribly disfiguring disease that discomforted those around him. Any of these things explain his resentment, his habits for word play, his split personalities, and general calm: if we cannot be sure that he is even alive, he certainly cannot be sure that Odysseus has actually come seeking him out (more specifically, Heracles's bow and arrow, which Philoktetes carries, and which Odysseus believes will allow him, at last, to conquer Troy). But there's something unsettling about this noncommittal language; what, for instance, are we to make of Philoktetes's comment that Neoptolemus, Achilles's son and Odysseus's comrade, is "such a fag"? (The response, by the way, is "What does that have to do with anything?" and Philoktetes's dismissal is, "Nothing, I just thought I'd notice it.") Sure, there's an implied subtext to the relationship between soldier and commander, but pointing it out for the sake of pointing it out is more redundant than the tautologies that Jesurun keeps stressing in his own highly symmetrical storytelling (and staging).
One thing Jesurun does to balance this willful obfuscation, this divide between text and image, between action and purpose, between life and death: he stills the actors. By quieting the emoting, at times to a hypnotic lull, a meditative prayer, or an itemized list, he is able to create pockets of sudden, visceral excitement. The cast handles this well, with Louis Cancelmi (as Philoktetes) eking out some of the wryest humor this side of The Misanthrope, and Will Badgett (as Odysseus) finding a frustrated indignation at having to deal with such an unwieldy tool. Jason Lew has the hardest time, forced to address an upstage video camera that projects his face to us, but turns his body away, and this disassociation carries over into his performance.
I loathe the production (the multimedia, the life-choking restraint), but am in awe of the core (the text, the actors). Watching Philoktetes, I care too much about trying to "get it," but reading the script late at night, in a fevered frenzy, and at my own inquisitive pace, I'm much more enamored with the philosophical ideas, thrilled with how bedecked they are in vulgarities. This is, perhaps, a work to be explored rather than experienced.