Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'Penthesilea'--Actors Ensemble & Inferno Theatre at Hinkel Park--Free

Friday September 05, 2014 - 08:28:00 AM

"Till now I thought force and counterforce were all that Nature knows, that no third power existed besides. What puts fire out will not bring water to a boil and vice-versa. Yet here's a deadly foe of each, and when it comes, fire won't know whether to flow with the deluge, nor water to leap up to heaven with the flames." 

So Odysseus, in the original text of Heinrich von Kleist's 1808 drama 'Penthesilea,' describes the maddening effect on the Greeksof the Amazon warriors appearing in battle during the Trojan War. 

In an unusual, outdoor production, Actors Ensemble of Berkeley has joined forces with Inferno Theatre, also of Berkeley (based at the South Berkeley Community Church), in a new, shortened and condensed version of Kleist's strange masterpiece of war and love, one which both exalts and attacks the body, the other exalting and attacking the identity. 

Giulio Perrone, founder of Inferno Theatre--and formerly director of the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theater near Eureka and on the staff of the Grotowski Institute in Italy--has crystalized Kleist's poetic drama into just one hour of action and speech, getting into the core of the play, when some Amazons begin to experience emotional attachment to their Greek prisoners--and even Achilles and Penthesilea, the Amazon queen, become mutually enthralled. But what if they must meet in battle? 

Perrone has also designed and directed the show, in the old amphitheater at John Hinkel Park, up in the hills near Kensington--the spare outdoor set, the "timeless" costumes of the belligerents, transport the audience under the trees with their sense of suggestion. There are moments of humor, of deliberate awkwardness, carried over from Kleist, as well as his all-embracing irony, ready to show a madly changing battlefield as well as the equally tempestuous inside of the characters who stalk it, carrying out a primitively wayward Uncertainty Principle to a tragic unraveling. 

The cast represents a range of theatrical training and experience--and becomes an ensemble onstage in the amphitheater, the performance of the group--like an army in combat--often standing above the individual actors and their characters. But there's that other triumph, to extend the "theater of war" metaphor--a great sense of presence, and of magnetism, of forces--as Odysseus said--heading powerfully if uncertainly toward reckoning. 

Danielle Martino plays Penthesilea, and Jacob Dean, Achilles. AnJu Hyppolite, Vicki Victoria and Emily Pierce are Amazons Prothoe, Meroe and Asteria, with Simone Bloch as the priestess and Tenya Spillberg and Katherine Potter as her (belly) dancers for the ceremony of roses, with Michael Needham as the wily Odysseus, Jerome Solberg as Diomedes and Manuel and Diego Perrone as Greek soldiers. 

The live musical element--violin, musical bow and sousaphone, plus chanting and singing--works very well,and the brevity of the production gives it a paradoxical--and Kleist-like!--density and complexity. 

It's fascinating to sit back in the shade of the great trees of Hinkel Park and watch the stylized mayhem of ancient battle and of sudden emotional turmoil and discovery, in the overriding atmosphere of a feast--the feast of roses, or a picnic, or the joint companies' barbecue, to which the public's invited. A perfect late summer afternoon outdoors, watching a clever adaptation of a great, intriguing play that's hardly ever performed. And this will be the last of three weekends. 

4 pm, Saturday and Sunday, September 6 and 7, John Hinkel Park, 41 Somerset, off Southampton, off Arlington, from the top of Marin Avenue. Free. or for reservations for groups or disabled, 649-5999.