About to take in a lively production of Euripides’ Hecuba at the East Village’s renowned Pearl Theater Company a few weeks ago, I was primed for a comparison with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production at BAM last summer. But rather than contrasting the grace of Shepard Sobel’s direction for the Pearl and Vanessa Redgrave’s hammy, almost over the top performance at BAM, I was struck by something that had nothing at all to do with Euripides. Of the people filling the theater, only a handful were within ten years of my age, and I am no longer by any means a young man. Damn near 90 percent of the people in the theater had been legally drinking well before I was born.
It’s obvious that very few East Village denizens along St. Marks will be taking in this intriguing rendering of Euripides’ tale, which possesses obvious parallels to our time. Even worse is envisioning the Pearl’s subscription base slowly disappearing every five years or so. Imagining souls that had a short time ago filled seats now empty brought to mind not only my own mortality but also the future of classical theater itself. Broadway producers seem to have attempted to solve this problem by replacing the aging audience with tourists from Middle America in desperate need of watching Disney adaptations or Christina Applegate singing ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’.
One would have expected the Drama Dept.’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s Rope to be filled with the geriatric but the median age was around 40. Ditto for the Barrow Street production of Orson’s Shadow. The Wooster Group has a creative approach that, though abstruse, speaks more to the so-called MTV generation — video monitors, computers, etc., while translating the works of Eugene O’Neill and Gertrude Stein. Likewise Richard Foreman’s new Zomboid!, Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), Young Jean Lee’s Pullman, WA at PS 122, and the wonderful Flea Theater in Tribeca all certainly draw younger theater acolytes.
The Pearl’s Hecuba, with its adherence to the use of masks and performance manners indicative of classic Greek tragedy, was one of the more intriguing, dare I say, palpably post-modern approaches to theater I’ve witnessed in some time. Yet few I would consider contemporaries will see it, and the audience that supports and understands its elegance slowly passes away year after year. It’s an unsettling phenomenon, and surely a conundrum for dramaturges.