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UVM Stages Euripides Classic With New Music

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Stage illustration by Glynnis Fawkes
  • Stage illustration by Glynnis Fawkes

John Franklin knows how you feel about ancient Greek theater. "Usually, when people hear the label 'Greek tragedy,' their eyes glaze over," he says. "They think of people pulling their hair and screaming, 'Woe is me.'" He hopes audiences will think differently after seeing his latest project.

This week, from March 22 to 25, the University of Vermont Department of Classics presents an unusually inventive rendition of Helen, by the classical Athenian playwright Euripides. The production at Burlington's Main Street Landing Black Box Theatre coincides with the Athenian City Dionysia, an ancient celebration of wine and drama. Accordingly, several local wine and mead makers will be on hand during pre-show lectures.

But it's Helen's soundtrack that marks a possible first for modern productions of classics. Franklin, the associate professor and chair of classics, who spearheaded the production, composed original music for the entire play using ancient techniques. He believes it's the first time such methods have been used to score a classical Greek play, the original melodies of which have been lost for centuries.

Like many classics scholars, Franklin considers Helen to be one of Euripides' "problem plays," which he says makes it an entertaining gateway into Greek theater. "Helen is an exceptional play because it's regarded as an experimental fusion of comedy and tragedy," he says.

Helen is rooted in an alternate version of Trojan War history that supposes the "face that launch'd a thousand ships" did not leave her husband, Menelaos, to run away to Troy with the Trojan prince Paris. Instead, the gods spirited the Spartan queen away to Egypt, where she stayed in hiding under the protection of Egyptian king Proteus. (The ever-duplicitous gods placed a phantom Helen lookalike with Paris to conceal the ruse.)

Euripedes' drama begins after Proteus dies and his son Theoklymenos intends to marry Helen, who has remained faithful to Menelaos for 17 years. However, having not returned to Greece after the war, Menelaos is now widely presumed dead. But is he?

(Two-thousand-four-hundred-year-old spoiler alert: nope.)

Franklin explains that Helen has "all the formal pieces of tragedy," including mythological aspects. But he adds that Euripides was known, sometimes derisively, as an "experimental dramatist." One of his hallmarks, and a facet of his writing that still influences modern storytellers, was how he humanized his heroes.

"He often made them less heroic and more like ordinary people," says Franklin.

When we first meet Menelaos, played by Nick Wilson, the warrior king is dressed in rags — a Euripides staple. Having been shipwrecked in Egypt on the way home from the war — hence the belief he'd perished — he's dressed so shabbily that Helen, played by Julia Irons, doesn't recognize him. Nor does the Spartan recognize his cunningly disguised wife, who is famously the world's most beautiful woman. Hilarity ensues.

"There is a good deal of domestic comedy throughout the play," says Franklin.

Much of that humor derives from another enduring Euripidean device.

"The men in this play are bumbling idiots," says director Aaron Robinson. "And everything is saved because the women are really smart." For example, he continues, "It's really [Helen] who hatches the plan to escape, even though she lets Menelaos think it was his idea."

Producing Helen involved multidisciplinary collaborations within the academic community and outside of it. Robinson, an administrative coordinator in the classics department, graduated from UVM in 2007 with a theater degree. Save for a couple of ringers, the actors are primarily classics graduate students with minimal theatrical experience.

Franklin's wife, cartoonist Glynnis Fawkes, handled visual design. This included several large images that will be projected behind the cast to enhance plot points and accent the choreography of Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans teacher Alexis Kamitses. Local artist Rachel Cosgrove designed the costumes.

But the most extensive collaboration was the one required to translate Helen from its original Greek.

Franklin describes the play as a "gift" to retired classics professor Z. Philip Ambrose. Franklin rounded up some of Ambrose's former students and colleagues and assigned each a speaking role to translate.

According to Franklin, translations of Greek tragedies are "often wooden and kind of ponderous." Further, they often rely on old-fashioned language that "is not necessarily in the Greek itself."

For most Greek classical productions, Franklin adds, theater companies will pick one translation and stick to it. "There's kind of a homogeneity to all of it," he says.

By contrast, Franklin assigned each speaking part to a different translator, resulting in characters with unique voices.

That's not to say Franklin's team of scholars took egregious liberties with Euripides' text. For one thing, Ambrose, the production's honoree, is a classic classics scholar, keen for precision.

Stage illustration by Glynnis Fawkes
  • Stage illustration by Glynnis Fawkes

"I wanted to make sure it would pass muster with him," says Franklin. And, he acknowledges, it would be inauthentic to remove or soften all of the verbosity in the material.

"There's a bit of loftiness just because of what Euripides says when they're talking about the gods; some of the imagery, you can't really write that out of it," Franklin explains. "But I tried to make it as digestible as possible."

Balancing authenticity and accessibility was also a concern as he conjured new melodies for the ancient play.

Franklin explains that all Greek poetic texts are also musical texts, meant to be accompanied by instruments. The problem is that the actual music hasn't been heard in roughly two millennia.

"But we do have the rhythms," he says. "Those rhythms are built into the texts just by virtue of the long and short syllables of the words."

Greek metrical schemes are based on syllable length. Long syllables are twice as long as short syllables, which makes it possible to translate those syllables into quarter and eighth notes, and so on.

"It couldn't have always been a two-to-one ratio in spoken language," Franklin says. "But when [Greek composers] turned it into music, they regularized it into that ratio and built the text into these unique rhythmic compositions."

He adds that each ode in a Greek text has a rhythmic identity that can be quite complex.

"The closest thing you could think of would be [Béla] Bartók or [Igor] Stravinsky, something with shifting time meters," Franklin says, referencing two classical composers famous for labyrinthine rhythms. "Or prog rock. That's the way I think of it."

In addition to his classical expertise, Franklin is a music scholar with a degree in composition and electronic music from the New England Conservatory. He's also a member of local rock band the Nancy Druids.

"What people will hear are the original rhythms of Euripides," he says of Helen, "and they're very interesting." The melodies, however, are all Franklin, with an acknowledged assist from Euripides — and maybe David Bowie and Freddie Mercury.

Franklin explains that ancient Greek had pitch accents on certain words and syllables, much as Chinese languages do. Ancient composers wrote melodies that followed those tonal accents. While that doesn't provide modern composers with sheet music, it does offer a framework. By employing ancient tunings and following accent rules, Franklin was able to compose using about the same method as Euripides.

"What you end up with is something that would sound familiar to the ancient Greeks," he says.

To perform the music, Franklin enlisted Jeff Davis on saz (Turkish lute) and ney (Egyptian flute) and frame drummer Jamie Levis. Davis plays in the local Syrian ensemble Grup Anwar and both men play in the local Turkish band Lokum.*

Franklin himself plays an electric lyre modeled on the ancient Phoenician kinnaru. He commissioned the instrument from Burlington luthier Creston Lea of Creston Electric Instruments.

John Franklin's lyre
  • John Franklin's lyre

According to Franklin, lyre, drum and lute and/or flute comprise a standard ancient Egyptian ensemble, lending the play another layer of authenticity. He praises his bandmates' worldly musicality, including familiarity with the non-Western intonations and meters of Syrian, Turkish and Balkan music.

"But this is those things all thrown into a blender and mixed into a long, shifting composition," he says of Helen.

"It doesn't sound like music you would see onstage today," adds Robinson.

But Franklin's curious sounds won't be completely alien to modern ears. Sharp audience members might notice some familiar passages throughout the play.

"I'm always conscious of those little three- or four-note phrases that remind me of David Bowie or Queen, the stuff I grew up with," says Franklin. "So I don't shy away from working in those more familiar flavors.

"As long as I'm working within those constraints, I'm not violating anything that's positive knowledge about the ancient Greeks," he says. "And I'll fill in the un-positive stuff with whatever sounds good to me."

*Correction, March 21, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jamie Levis as a member of Grup Anwar.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Classics Rock"

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