“Flies” is West Side Sartre

Grace Sun

“The Flies,” opening tonight on the Loeb Mainstage, is an update of Jean Paul Sartre’s allegory of Nazi-occupied France, which itself was a retelling of the Greek myth of Orestes, a hero who chose to challenge the gods.

Although the story of “The Flies,” opening tonight on the Loeb Mainstage, originated 2,500 years ago, its ancient philosophy remains central to the contemporary reimagining of the story. “We’re taking this play that I think is absolutely brilliant, but I’ve never actually seen performed, and trying to present it in a way that a young, modern-day audience is supposed to relate to and get excited about,” says director Geordie F. Broadwater ’04. In an effort to do this, Broadwater replaced temples and sandals with dive bars and spurs.

“The Flies” is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orestes, a prince who returns to his native city of Argos only to find that the gods have been punishing the city for failing to stop his mother, Queen Clytemnestra, from murdering her first husband. The play centers on Orestes’ attempt to challenge the gods, and his decision about whether it is easier to live a predetermined life of penitence or to accept the responsibility of choosing one’s own destiny. Jean-Paul Sartre adapted the myth into a play in 1943 to create an allegory about life in France under the Nazi occupation. Broadwater rewrote the dialogue to reflect the way that modern college students speak and chose to rethink the play as a western in the style of “No Country for Old Men.”

“I was thinking about myths,” explains Broadwater. “This is a Greek play, so I tried to wrap my head around what American myths are. The story basically has the plot of a western and a samurai movie, and I decided to go with the western.” This decision involved numerous changes to the original script, including a complete overhaul of the setting. The throne room of the original becomes a tycoon’s office; the temple of Apollo becomes a hacienda-style church; and the cave of the spirits becomes an old mine. Most of the action, however, takes place in a bar.

“In a seedy little town,” observes set designer M. Amelia Muller ’11, “the bar is always the centerpiece, and it’s always a scummy bar.” Muller was able to accomplish this run-down aesthetic using the same brown colors that dominate the play’s posters. But the biggest challenge of “The Flies” for Muller was the scale of the production, which demanded five distinct sets.

Despite the ancient origin of the story, the actors insist that its message is highly relevant for college students. “I think it’s a really nuanced investigation of freedom and the responsibility that freedom brings, and the decision to accept responsibility and come into full consciousness,” says Madeleine A. Bennett ’11, who plays one of the Furies. “It’s not just an affirmation of freedom, but a critical look at what it implies and whether it’s worth taking on.”

The play also includes controversial elements, especially a climactic moment when the spirits of the dead are released from the old mine to haunt the city for a day. “The religious ceremony will be taken by a lot of people as absurd,” says Chris J. Carothers ’11. “It’s very vicious towards religion in general. It’s modeled on real ceremonies that actually exist. It’s not fake, it’s not absurd, it’s not even exaggerated.” Carothers adds that the ceremony reminded him of Shiite self-flagellation ceremonies that were used to mourn Imam Hussein and that the scene is supposed to recreate the feelings of shock and discomfort that come when one is immersed in a new place or culture. However, Broadwater says that the scene is not meant as a direct criticism of religion. “I think that the play deals a lot with thinking for yourself, and I think that sometimes, some people can lean on the crutch of religion in lieu of thinking for themselves. I don’t think that religion is bad, but I think that blindly following dogma is something that Sartre would have taken issue with.”

“The Flies” is this year’s incarnation of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s Visiting Director’s Project, which involves bringing a professional director to Cambridge to direct a production on the Loeb Mainstage. The resulting piece is usually considered HRDC’s main play of the season. Many members of the cast say that working with Broadwater has been a positive experience for them as actors. “When you’re working with peers [as directors],” says Carolyn W. Holding ’10, who plays Electra, “it’s tough because you’re friends, but they are also an authority figure. With other professionals that we’ve had, they’re very established and set in their ways. Geordie... still understands our state of mind.” Because Broadwater wrote this adaptation of “The Flies” himself, the cast was free to make changes during rehearsals, and both the actors and Broadwater stress that the piece has been a collaborative effort.

“My training and experience since graduating has led me to embrace the idea that actors are artists capable of great thought, and that should be utilized in rehearsal,” says Broadwater. “I wanted to make a script that was fresh, interesting and funny. I was interested in fleshing out the emotions of the principal characters. I think they’re a little two-dimensional on the page, so I spent a lot of time talking with the actors and asking questions.”

Tali B. Friedman ’10, who plays Clytemnestra, appreciates this approach to acting and learning a character. “When I started, I was looking at her as a villain, but over the last couple weeks I’ve come to sympathize with her. She made a bad choice and it all came crashing around her head,” she says.

“I didn’t want Clytemnestra to be the evil woman,” Broadwater adds. “The more we find ways to understand who she is and feel her pain, the more we empathize with her, so that she seems like a real human being.”

Besides the elaborate technical aspects of the production and the presence of a professional director, the subject matter of “The Flies” should appeal to a broad variety of students. “What’s really cool is that it can cross literary and genre boundaries,” says Muller. “It is first Greek myth, then Sartre, and then Geordie’s interpretation of Sartre. It offers something to many different people.”