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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the October 16, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Forget Herostratus’

Not that there is anything wrong with it, but most

commercial theaters (Broadway or otherwise) have Nick-at-Nite disease.

Rather than take a chance on a new or challenging play, most theaters

prefer to offer safe theatrical trinkets of days-gone-by, like "Arsenic

and Old Lace" or "Annie Get Your Gun." High-sounding notions

of art and beauty pretty much go out the window because theater audiences

are believed to prefer something well-known (and comfortable) to something

new (and challenging) before dipping into their pockets for ticket


But every once in a while, like a flower growing out of a rock, surprises

happen and art turns up in the most unlikely places. Bristol Riverside

Theater’s current production of "Forget Herostratus" is a

nicely crafted melding of multiple art forms into a dynamite theatrical

success. It combines an entertaining and disturbing script; visually

stunning set, lighting and costume designs; a film-like use of music

reminiscent of "A Clockwork Orange," and fine performances

by its actors, particularly that of Edward Keith Baker in the lead

role. "Forget Herostratus" offers a rare opportunity for area

theater-lovers to get beyond the hum-drum.

The play — written by Russian writer Grigory Gorin, with a new

translation by Ashkhen Petrossian and adapted by director Armen S.

Khandikian — is a classically inspired story told with a contemporary

twist. Herostratus (Edward Keith Baker) is a failed fish peddler who

sits in a jail cell for burning down the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus,

Greece, in 356 B.C. But unlike the typical classical hero, Herostratus’

arson wasn’t motivated by unrequited love, political protest, or some

other noble cause, but by the vain desire for fame and notoriety.

Like a slick Machiavelli, Herostratus deftly manipulates anyone around

him. Freely admitting his crime and sentenced to die, he pays off

the jailer (David Heuvelman) to buy drinks for the citizenry to win

their sympathy ("Tomorrow they’ll like me, in a year they’ll love

me, and in five years they will worship me.") Writing his biography

on a scroll of papyrus, he sells it to his ex-father-in-law, Chrysippus

(Thom Haneline) and enhances his fame by becoming a best-selling author.

Herostratus becomes such a big celebrity that he is able to seduce

Clementina (Chandler Vinton), the wife of emperor Tissafernes (Dan

Diggles), and then tries to save his life and gain political power

by virtue of her marital indiscretion. But he runs into Cleon the

Magistrate (Robert Ian Mackenzie), a man too honest to negotiate,

and falls to a bloody end.

Baker is superb as Herostratus. In his position as full-time

artistic director, Baker is a familiar face on the Bristol Riverside

stage. Through the years he has routinely delivered well-crafted performances,

but never has he been handed a role which allows him to strut his

actorly stuff with quite such elan. It is to his credit that he plays

it to the hilt with skill and infectious energy. Baker adds nuance

and depth to a character that, in the wrong hands, could be thoroughly

unlikable. Never have we seen him this honest.

Dan Diggles is also a plus as Tissafernes, gliding through his performance

like warm wine. His character is partly corrupt, part victim, but

Diggles never resorts to acting cliches, instead giving the emperor

a real heartbeat by sincerely responding on a moment-to-moment basis.

Chandler Vinton as Clementina is pleasant, mixing a shrewd sexual

oomph with a calculating hypocritical glint in the eye that becomes

her character. Steven Stein-Grainger as one of the citizens of Ephesus,

adds a charming moment of Chaplinesque elegance to a brief but disturbing

moment late in the play.

Armen S. Khandikian, an Armenian director making his American debut,

has a delicate and unique visual touch that seems almost painterly.

Combining unexpected expressionistic perks — such as slow motion,

dance-like action, and mood music interlaced into the dialogue —

in a fairly straightforward storyline, he creates an unobtrusive ambiance

out of even the most dream-like or surreal moments of the play, making

them seem natural and inevitable. He also has a good eye for the delicately

poetic moment, while carefully avoiding the maudlin.

The designs of Evgeny Safronov (set design), Mary Sarkissyan (costumes),

and Charles S. Reece (lighting) all fuse together to create a visually

enticing theatrical event. The translation of the play by Ashkhen

Petrossian is light, friendly to contemporary ears, and laced with

a wicked humor. The only knock on the production is that the translation

seems word-heavy at times, reiterating verbally what the audience

has already experienced visually.

"Forget Herostratus" is the second offering of the US-Armenia

Theatrical Exchange Project (US-ATEP), which promotes cross-cultural

exchange by teaming American stage professionals with their Armenian

counterparts. Vartan Petrossian’s "Between Two Mountains,"

staged last summer at BRT, earned acclaim from the Armenian-American


Of course there are oodles of similarities between Herostratus and

a host of contemporary crooked political power-grabbers, media-inspired

villains (from Timothy McVeigh to the mystery sniper in Washington,

D.C.), and the corporate executives swept up in scandals all over

the nation. But part of the fascination of such media-icons is that

they are extreme examples of everyday citizens. On the surface, Herostratus

seems like a character it would be easy to hate, but he remains complicated

and likable because many of his excesses feel like our own.

— Jack Florek

Forget Herostratus, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120

Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. To October 27. $27.

For the English majors in the audience, the production is chock

full of enough expressionistic symbolism to keep the audience cooing

through intermission and all the way home. ("Why are they wearing

those masks?" and "What do you think the black scarf symbolizes?")

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