warplay. Written by JC Lee, Directed by Ben Randle. New Conservatory Theater Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102.
Ed Decker and NCTC end their 35th season with yet another world premiere, this time a showcase for young artists in JC Lee’s sensational re-imagining of the love story of Achilles and Patroclus in warplay. Seven years in the making have has paid off handsomely for Lee (Luce at Lincoln Center Theatre, ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder), who has creatively blended elements of The Iliad with a modern gay love story that is both classically poetic, contemporary and deeply moving.
Through a series of nine subtitled vignettes, Lee weaves the story of the brave and determined Achilles and the dedicated Patroclus, one of the oldest gay love stories in western culture. The childhood friends have become lovers and Lee has incorporated universal aspects of their relationship, like gentle bickering and tests of the depths of their love that are relatable to everyone.
Ed Berkeley (Where All Good Rabbits Go, Phedre) is commanding and believable as the heroic Achilles. Accused by his lover of ‘toxic masculinity’, he struggles with his destiny as a god and his self-determined quest for greatness. Does he have any free will and choice in his life, or is his fate sealed? JD Sclazo (Sons of the Prophet, Maggie’s Riff) is Achilles opposite; anxious, questioning, and fearful. At times, he regrets “having magnets in their hearts that suck them together”. Both young actors are spectacular, drawing the audience into the very private interplay between two committed lovers. Their acting is a thing of beauty, adeptly arranged by director Ben Randle and the smart, credible dialogue of JC Lee.
Achilles and Patroclus are on a journey to a ‘game’, ominous rumblings echoing in the distance. Achilles loves all games, as they define his manliness. Patroclus could care less, he’s a thinker who provides the counterbalance to questions of destiny and fate. But his love for Achilles supersedes his timidity and he’s onboard for the battle to come. Through the vignettes, Lee gives us the classic story of Achilles told through modern constructs. Achilles and his mother attend a rock concert where he hears the rock anthem “Come Sail Away” by the band Styx, and remembers a memory of his mother dipping him in river by his foot, all references to the historical record. Achilles’s father gives him his shield, the mark of a hero and with it the dilemma that accompanies the special. Patroclus struggles with the knowledge that he may only be “a distraction from what’s always been determined”.
There’s a sadness to their love. Achilles wants to protect Patroclus, but at what cost? Can Patroclus alter destiny? His attempt to match Achilles braveness results in tragedy. True to his love for Patroclus, Achilles defies his fate and lives to an old age. In a tender final scene, the two loves meet again, on either side of the river Styx. Achilles remembers all, Patroclus has no memories. But love knows no boundaries and Patroclus remembers a kiss and thinks the two could be good friends.
New Conservatory has become the grooming ground for excellence in new LGBT theatre. warplay represents the very best our youth has to offer; imaginatively creative playwriting, great acting and focused direction. Gay love from the days of The Iliad is as constant as time itself – game on.
Performances run through July 2nd, 2017 www.nctcsf.org 415.861.8972