Greek Troupe Looks to Its Roots in Interpreting Ancient Tragedy THE PERSIANS Drama by Aeschylus. Directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos

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CHICAGO'S fifth International Theatre Festival, which continues through June 19, offers theatergoers a grabbag of drama, ranging from Mexican existentialism to Canadian surrealism to British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's newest comedy, "Communicating Doors."

One of the festival's most striking performances, however, was an experimental Greek company's rendering of the classic 5th-century BC Greek tragedy, "The Persians," by Aeschylus. (The production, which ended June 5, was performed in repertory with a modern Greek play "Kanon.")

The Attis Theatre of Athens brought both plays to Chicago, and its cast was exceptional for the skill with which it enlivened the ancient drama. Although an intensely physical, modern performance, the essence of Aeschylus was still preserved.

"The theater is static, but we are not static. We start from the basic principles of the work and make it new," director Theodoros Terzopoulos said in an interview backstage.

In a bold fusion of old and new, the actors stood on low platforms and wore simple flowing black robes reminiscent of the costumes of ancient Athens. But the actors also used jarring, modern props such as black-and-white photographs of Bosnian war victims.

They spoke both modern and ancient Greek to fully exploit the languages' rich variety of sounds. They blended classical dialogue with eerie wails, groans, and shuddering movements. At times, however, the gestures seemed overwrought and distracted the viewer from the play's universal theme of the futility of war.

The play, originally presented by Aeschylus in Athens in 472 BC,was itself unprecedented for its deeply sympathetic treatment of a defeated enemy. The only surviving Greek tragedy to deal with historical subject matter, the play is set in the aftermath of Persia's stunning defeat in the battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Remarkably for the time, however, the play does not gloat over the Greek victory but instead vividly relates the anguish of the vanquished Persians.

The play chronicles the total destruction of the massive forces led by the Persian king, Xerxes, through the eyes of the Persians who learn of the devastation in the Persian capital of Susa.

From the opening scene, the actors controlled their bodies, faces, and voices to evoke - without words - the Persians' sense of impending doom. Slowly rocking back and forth in wavelike unison, the actors conveyed the agonizing six-month wait for a messenger to arrive with news of the war. …