Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Hermes," an Olympians Festival Success Story

It's been eight months since I devoted my weekends to working the box office at the San Francisco Olympians Festival -- and it's seven months until Olympians Festival II: Heavenly Bodies, for which I am a writer and associate producer. Don't mistake this for a lull or a fallow period, though! I'm hard at work on my play -- and feeling inspired by seeing Bennett Fisher's Hermes, a script from last summer's Olympians Festival, in a full production this month.

Hermes was one of my favorite plays last summer, and I'm happy that so many more people now have the chance to see it. It's a fast-moving drama about four American derivatives traders devising shady ways to profit from the Greek financial crisis. When they cross one ethical line too many, they attract the attention of Hermes -- god of business, money, liars and thieves. While Hermes is a very angry play, enraged at the manipulation of the financial markets by amoral and rapacious actors, it is also very funny. Hermes comes back to earth in the form of a fratty bro who enjoys giving people stupid nicknames and punching them in the balls.

Stuart Bousel, founder and producer of No Nude Men and the Olympians Festival, says Hermes merits a full production because it embodies the original goal of the festival: to prove the continuing relevance and power of Greek mythology. Ben Fisher doesn't just retell a myth about Hermes, he invents a new one, and explores an aspect of Hermes' personality that often goes unremarked upon. (We tend to think of Hermes as a cheerful trickster, not an amoral bully.) The Greek gods were very human gods, each representing a different aspect of human nature or human life. Because the themes that they embodied are still with us today, so, too, are the gods themselves.

Not only is Hermes a great example of the relevance of Greek mythology, but it is also a great example of the relevance and power of theater itself. As I said, this play centers on the Greek financial crisis -- a real event that happened just one year ago. This kind of rapid response to world events is something that theater (especially small, non-commercial theater) can do but other narrative art forms, such as fiction and film, have more trouble achieving. In Act II of Hermes, the god causes the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, to erupt, stranding the human characters in Europe. When I saw this scene in the July reading of Hermes -- just three months after the volcano had erupted in real life -- I was amazed at the audacity and cleverness of it. When was the last time you saw a play that even referenced an event that happened so recently? And Ben does more than reference the event -- he works it into the plot and mythological framework of the play.

The craftsmanship of Hermes therefore fascinates me: it was written almost in real time, reacting to events in the outside world. When you've got a commission to write a play about Hermes, and various factors conspire to cause a debt crisis in Greece -- Greece, of all places! -- you'd damn well better take advantage of that. And yet, despite the immediacy of the piece, it also has a reflective side, finding interesting things to say about greed, power, and the similarity between gods and debt: "both are substitutes for more tangible assets."

Helping to make the intangible words on a page into a tangible full production are director Tore Ingersoll-Thorpe and six talented actors, all of whom are skilled at delivering the tangy dialogue. Juliana Egley, Geoffrey Nolan, Carl Lucania and Brian Markley play the derivatives traders, Lauren Spencer plays the goddess Hestia (a bartender and waitress), and Brian Trybom plays Hermes. You'll never look at this god the same way again -- and that's the point of the Olympians Festival, isn't it?

plays at the Exit Stage Left through March 26 -- details and tickets here.

Photo by Claire Ann Rice. Brian Trybom as Hermes, Geoffrey Nolan as Jack.

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