The cast of ‘The Persians’ at Undermain Theatre. (Photos by Paul Semrad)

Undermain Theatre goes old school with its current production of the Aeschylus’ tragedy. The earliest known play in existence first produced in 472 BC, Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of The Persians opened in previews last Thursday and opened Saturday night. The regional premiere was directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni and with her at the helm, the play unfolded like a dramatic poem that ramped up to a tragic climax in a quick and compelling hour and 30-ish show with no intermission. 

Playing Queen Atossa in despair, Marianne Galloway brought a regal but damaged flair to her role. Having a dream about her son Xerxes, king of the Persians, played by Mac Welch, she fears the worst. The Persian chorus, if you will, smother her with worship but she refutes their admiration in wait for her son off at war. When the herald barely makes it back to his homeland, he confirms Atossa’s visions. 

The chorus of Persians are a political cabinet representing Justice (Danny Lovell), Religion (Shiyama Nithiananda), State (Megan Noble), The Admiral (Anthony L. Ramirez) led by the Chairman Jason Douglas (The Walking Dead fans may recognize him as Tobin). Onstage at all times, the cast milled about mostly spouting their adoration for Xerxes and Atossa but also debated the perils of war and the state of the nation. They chant and bang their sticks in unison all to a militaristic and devout effect to their land and king. Each actor succeeded in their parts as they volleyed dialogue and tributes with heightened voices and specific intent and aching physicality when each is possessed by the spirit of the former king. 

With her stark punk-ish blond hair, Galloway immediately drew eyes to her Queen Atossa. She brought a quiet regalness to the queen but with Atossa’s emotions, Galloway painted her with very human strokes. As the herald, Thomas Leverton was nothing short of astonishing. Beginning with an exhausted entrance, his role just rose and rose with blusterous energy recapping the tales of war to the queen and chorus. As Xerxes, Welch had less stage time despite the play being all about him. Playing a failed king, Welch juggled emotions and hubris well.

Vaeni’s handling of this material felt easy and flowed well. The dialogue and story were meaty but Vaeni and McLaughlin’s kept it easy to follow as details were always revealed with almost every line.

Robert Winn’s set was a raised relief map that was such a clever way to paint the picture of the land and war and really just such a beautiful choice.

Shahrzad Mazaheri’s costume felt appropriate to ancient times although a suit jacket appeared on the Chairman in a reveal that was a jarring contrast to everything else. While the chorus were mostly in pale or muted neutral colors, Atossa’s costumes were deep and rich solids of red and black separately that added to the drama. Undermain continued its mastery of lighting this time by Caroline Hodge who brought subtle tones and crisp moments that added another layer to the story. 

The Persians runs through May 26.

–Rich Lopez