Tune in yesterday

Ion was written some 500 years before the birth of Christ by a man who, infrequently honored with literary awards during his lifetime, wrote and lived alone in a cave. (Like all juicy tidbits about classical writers, this last item may be apocryphal, originally invented in the interest of characterizing his personality rather than recounting his life).

It's not hard to see how Euripides might be underappreciated, considering that his work was preceded by the wildly popular tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles and that, well, his public relations skills were seriously lacking. Classical writers fall in and out of favor in cycles centuries after they die, depending on the states of the cultures studying them. Euripides might be flattered that he's surpassed his predecessors to become the most honored of Greek tragedy writers. Given his reputation for misanthropy and intense devotion to the writing process, he would probably insist it was a thrill just to be nominated.

What fascinates us about his work is the same thing that likely contributed to his relative underappreciation during his day: He didn't uphold or celebrate Greek ideals so much as use them to make startlingly acute, sometimes caustic, and downright subversive observations about human nature. In short, Euripides was far more interested in the individual than the larger society, something that would make him not only unpopular but dangerous amid the nationalistic fervor of ancient Greece. And as evidenced by Ion and his great tragedies Medea and Electra, this inclination crossed gender lines--no other Greek playwright colored female characters with so varied a palette of human emotions. If these hues tend to be dark, that just suggests that Euripides thought women were capable of playing hardball with the big boys when it came to portraying the potentially tragic intersection of emotion and behavior.

Ion plays for just one more weekend as part of the Fort Worth equity theater Stage West's "Adventure Series." You wouldn't think that a play written in the 420s B.C. could offer us any uncharted dramatic lands to explore, save for two possibilities. First, this is a new and slightly anachronistic translation by David Lan, artistic associate of London's Royal Court Theatre. Second, the modern, full-scale production of a play written in the 420s B.C. offers a contradictory mix. Lacking the televisual techniques and other modern stage contrivances audiences are accustomed to, there is something challenging yet familiar at the same time in this kind of show.

David Lan's version has really only tweaked the original, mostly kicking a bit more comedy into the proceedings. There's no ghastly deconstruction, no political revisionism, and no contemporary settings for this tale of a guileless orphan and his tormented mother who are reunited and, in the process of attempting to fulfill their own personal agendas, almost kill each other. A bit of modern slang, like one character referring to a doomed other as "dead meat," seems to be the extent of Lan's contemporizing.

And yet, that's all the update you really need to keep Greek tragedy spry. Scholars and pundits who decry academia's current preoccupation with pop culture at the expense of the classical canon cringe when somebody suggests something relativistic like, say, late-twentieth-century American TV soap operas and Greek tragedies have much in common. Obviously, the latter are crafted with more poetry than the former, but you really have to wonder if average Athenian audiences savored the nuance of language the way today's scholars do. They craved sex and violence just like today's mainstream audiences; the authors who've survived, like Euripides, were masters at playing to both brows.

Stage West's Ion is directed with constantly revolving, in-the-round vigor by Jim Covault and performed by a reliable cast of actors hellbent on driving the story to its inevitable conclusion, not enunciating every line with bellowing bombast. The pace is so pleasantly fleet, you scarcely realize you're watching literature at all.

We are told our eponymous hero's future by a rather sardonic statue of Hermes (Nicolas Sandys), who gallops and poses across the stage to tell us Ion will become a great world leader--a conqueror of Asia, among other achievements. Yet when we meet the adolescent Ion (Hayden Gore), he is a shy, sweet-natured caretaker at Apollo's temple in Delphi, "the epicenter of the universe."

In addition to sweeping the stone floors (where he sleeps every night) and sacrificing goats in honor of the god he's given his young life to, Ion acts as a kind of tour guide through the holy place. He greets Creusa (Pam Daugherty), the daughter of the ruler of Athens, and her husband Xuthus (Michael Muller), on their trek to Delphi to pray for advice on a vexing problem: Why do they have no children?

In fact, when Creusa comes to the temple, it is as a spurned lover, not a needy worshiper: Unbeknownst to her husband, she was, as a young woman, ravished by the randy Apollo, and gave birth to a child she abandoned. Well, guess who just happened to have been abandoned at the temple where he currently serves? Ion has been searching for his mother, but winds up being named the son of Xuthus by Apollo, establishing a lineage that threatens the survival of Creusa's house.

Although many talents contribute, Stage West's Ion is essentially a tennis match between the volatile Creusa and Ion, her fatally sincere son. Pam Daugherty, who incidentally looks like I'd always imagined Medea, soft-pedals her character's angry side in favor of nicely controlled anguish, so even during the most vindictive soliloquies, there are traces of regret with which to sympathize.

Hayden Gore as Ion is a real charmer, but not until a good half hour into the production I saw did he reach his stride. A tall, bony fellow who's one part sharp angles to three parts vulnerability, Gore works his long-limbed willow of a body without self-consciousness--no mean feat, considering he wears the equivalent of a dish towel throughout the play. To his credit, he is most convincing expressing his character's most idealistic sentiments. When proud papa Xuthus regales his reluctant new son with promises of wealth and power in Athens, Gore as Ion declines, insisting that luxury is poor compensation for living in daily fear of assassination. The actor wrung gales of charmed laughter from the audience for his gentle, aw-shucks delivery.

One last thought on why plays from ancient Greece are less distant than you might think: America's Judeo-Christian tradition features a single, all-powerful God whose mercy is available to everyone who follows a certain set of rules. But life at the edge of the millennium often feels capricious, addled, the work of a noisy, conflicted committee that thinks as chaotically and imperfectly as people do--in short, upper management from this angle nowadays feels more Olympian than Christian. Ion flatters us by reconnecting our own contorted lives to the divine.

Ion runs through August 9. Call (817)

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Jimmy Fowler