The Alcestiad. Thornton Wilder’s flop resurrected on Roosevelt Island

The Magis Theater Company’s staging of “The Alcestiad” beneath the dramatic sky on Roosevelt Island is a spectacular resurrection in several ways. The play by Thornton Wilder features a resurrection: Hercules rescues Queen Alcestis from Hell. The production resurrects what one theater professor has called the “only flop” by the author of “Our Town,” “The Skin of Our Teeth” and ”The Matchmaker,” which was eventually adapted into the musical “Hello, Dolly.”  And the timing of the show – the last of its three performances occurs tonight – helps welcome New York audiences to the resurrection of in-person summer theater. 

The directors, designers and cast do a great job in turning Wilder’s stiff adaptation of  Euripides’ Ancient Greek tragedy into a work of theater that’s both  entertaining and resonant. But I’d be lying if I denied that the three most important factors in the show’s effectiveness are the same three factors that people who work in real estate  like to say account most for the success of a real estate property in New York. They are: location, location and location.

“The Alcestiad” is mounted on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, in the FDR Four Freedoms State Park at the foot of the grand steps designed by the renowned architect Louis Kahn to serve as a modernist ode to the Golden Age of Greece.  Yes, it’s thus a good spot for an adaptation of a Greek tragedy, and yes, it  offers an awe-inspiring close-up vista of the Manhattan skyline.  But there’s something more: The playing area is directly in front of the dramatic ruins of New York’s old Smallpox Hospital.

It isn’t fully clear until the third act of Wilder’s three-act drama why Magis artistic director George Drance chose this spot (and this play),  although we have hints from the very first scene, when the god Apollo (portrayed by Drance, in a white tunic) confronts Death (Kimbirdlee Fadner, twirling in a Spanish black widow dress with a splash of red.) 

 Death makes only cameo appearance through much of the next ninety minutes, a crowded plot that unfolds over 24 years and largely focuses on Alcetis (portrayed first by Mae Roney, then Margi Sharp Douglas.) When first we see her, in Act I, Alcestis is a princess reluctantly pledged to marry Admetus, King of Thessaly (first Tony Macht, then Russ Cusick)  because he achieved what no other suitor before him had been able to accomplish (with special help from Apollo): He  successfully yoked a lion and a boar together and drove them around the walls of the city.  I didn’t understand why this would be a suitable test for matrimony, and Alcestis apparently has her doubts as well.  She doesn’t want to marry; she wants to be a priestess to Apollo. She doesn’t want to spend all her days “knowing as little of why we live and why we die—of why the hundred thousand live and die—as the day we were born.” 

She changes her mind, persuaded that Apollo wants her to marry. 

A herdsman (Diego Andres Tapia, who may or may not be Apollo in disguise) tells her: ‘The world changes; it changes slowly. What good would this world be, Princess, unless new kinds of men came into it—and new kinds of women?’

 As queen, she comes to love her husband, so much so that she agrees to sacrifice her own life in a bargain with the gods that will allow an ill King Admetus to reverse his fate and live on. It is then that an angry and distraught Hercules (standout  Gabriel Portuondo), who was one of her failed suitors and lifetime admirers, sets on his journey to rescue her from Hell.

All along, the characters have offered speeches – questioning the  intention of the puzzling and ambiguous gods, trying to understand the uncertain purpose in their own lives – that sound more Wilder than Euripides. But it’s not until Act III that we fully appreciate the modern parallels: A plague has struck the land, but the new leader is a tyrant who refuses to help, and indeed is looking to blame others for the plague.

At various times, Wilder (who died in 1975 at the age of 78), tried to explain his play: “On one level, my play recounts the life of a woman–of many women–from bewildered bride to sorely tested wife to overburdened old age. On another level it is a wildly romantic story of gods and men, of death and hell and resurrection, of great loves and great trials, of usurpation and revenge. On another level, however, it is a comedy about a very serious matter.”

But on the unlevel ground of the Four Freedoms park (including freedom from fear), in view of the United Nations headquarter, past the signs in front of the gated hospital (“Please do not feed the wildlife,” “No trespassing: Structure is unstable”), “The Alcestiad” offers an ineffable connection with the past, and the present, that Thornton Wilder might well have appreciated.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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