Theater Of War -- And Everything Else

06/29/2016 12:50 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2017

Some of the most compelling theater being performed globally, starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood, actors such as Paul Giamatti, Jesse Eisenberg, Elizabeth Marvel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Frances McDormand, Amy Ryan, John Turturro, Lily Taylor and David Strathairn, has less to do with entertaining the audience than it does with healing the world.

Bryan Doerries, co-founder and artistic director of the theater company, Outside the Wire, is the Joseph Papp of social impact, deploying ancient Greek dramatists, along with the occasional Shakespeare and O'Neil, to give self-selected audiences the freedom to speak to their pain, and to connect with audiences across time who were also suffering from feelings of loss, betrayal and heartache.

When Doerries puts on a show, a Greek chorus from the heavens sings praise of the scale of his ambition, and well, yes... hubris. He has taken the very same Greek dramatists that have inspired the culture wars and the politics of identity, and redeployed them in the service of public health. In an Outside the Wire production, these ancient Greeks should probably have taken the Hippocratic oath.

At the end of each performance no Drama Desk or Tony nomination waits in the wing (although a Nobel mighty be appropriate); there's barely time for even a bow. A Doerries directed (and translated from the ancient Greek) production has no final curtain because once the reading is over, a secondary show begins--one of brave and inspirational audience participation.

Unlike the usual TKTS crowd, the audience for these performances do not consist of gays, grays, or tourists, but rather traumatized combat veterans and their spouses, emotionally damaged prison guards, hospice workers, families suffering from domestic violence, others from addiction, and a host of other social ills made more understandable, if not bearable, after a performance of classical Greek theater that confronts the open wounds of the human experience.

Those afflicted with combat-related psychological injury hear the wails and moans of Ajax and Philoctetes, two of Greek drama's most tragic war heroes, in two of Sophocles' plays by the same name; medical professionals and caregivers, and those dealing with end of life questions, hear readings from Sophocles' Women of Trachis and Philoctetes; those working in correction facilities who supervise prisons and hope to rehabilitate prisoners listen to the words of Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound; people afflicted with drug addiction and abuse are treated to readings from Euripides' Bacchae, as well as Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.

The latest installment of Outside the Wire's mission was launched last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music ("BAM") with a marvelous new translation and production entitled, Medea & Phaedra: Tragedies of Passion, Betrayal, and Revenge. It starred Marvel, Ryan, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, and Bill Camp.

In the hands of the always capable and transformative Marvel, Medea's plight as an abandoned wife who loses her husband, Jason, to a beautiful princess, after having sacrificed all for him, including being exiled from her own home where she was once royalty, helps better explain the depth of her feelings of betrayal and the lack of options she is afforded. Camp was convincing as an arrogant, emotionally obtuse Jason who exhibits little remorse and empathy for his wife. Given this degree of scorn, where the cheating husband's behavior is without redemption, the audience is moved to rethink all of their assumptions about just deserts.

Medea may be regarded as Euripides' embodiment of the monster mother, but in this production, revenge, if not sweet, at least comes across as thoughtful. Medea's actions--insane or evil though it may be--were not without reason. Her desperation is palpable, her pain even more so. Doerries manages to tease emotional complexity out of otherwise barbarous criminal acts.

In Seneca's Phaedra, Amy Ryan portrayed the title character superbly, a women with a heedless lust for her stepson, which leads her to manipulate her husband, an unfinished infidelity that produces tragic results.

Children are the primary victims of these plays, but the audience, many of whom had their own experiences with families torn apart by betrayal, and where children were also sacrificed in horrific ways, in the second act of the evening, were given the opportunity to speak to how these classics from another era, somehow, improbably, seemed richly modern, and invaluably therapeutic, in Doerries' hands