On Feb. 18, Theater of War Productions introduced The Madness of Hercules, a project that presents dramatic readings by acclaimed actors of Euripides’ play The Madness of Heracles. For each of its projects, the company selects an ancient Greek tragedy with themes relating to a contentious issue: The Madness of Hercules is meant to generate discussions on the atrocities caused by armed violence.
In the play, Hercules (played by David Denman, best known for his role in The Office) returns to Thebes, where his family has just been abducted by a tyrant. Hercules goes insane on the journey to find his family, killing everybody in sight with his bow. In this blind rage, Hercules accidentally slaughters his own wife and children and becomes ridden with guilt when he realizes what he has done. When Hercules begins contemplating suicide, his close friend and war veteran Theseus (played by Nyasha Hatendi) consoles him by encouraging him to share his burden with the community, ultimately saving his life.
The connection to gun violence is not hidden within the layers of the play, but plainly exhibited to the audience. Although he is a demigod, Hercules represents a normal man who cares about the safety of his family. Yet once he has the bow which was meant to defend his loved ones, he ultimately destroys them.
Denman’s performance as Hercules was riveting and impassioned. It’s evident from the show that he channeled the forlorn father as he screamed into the camera, his face flushed and his eyes full of tears. Taylor Schilling (best known for her role in Orange is the New Black) exhibited the same level of dedication in her part as the Chorus. It was powerful to see how well these actors have adapted to Zoom theater and a lack of rehearsal before the show. Their chemistry and love for their craft emanated through the audience members’ computer screens.
After the show concluded, Bryan Doerries, the creative director of Theater of War Productions, initiated the panel discussion. The panel was made up of people with a connection to gun violence, such as the CEO of a victims resource center, a former district attorney who visited gruesome crime scenes and the father of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. Each panel member had different experiences connecting them to the play and its morals, but each shared similarly traumatizing stories.
Dominic Dupont, Theater of War Productions’ community liaison, then asked viewers “What struck you tonight?” The following discussion was confined to an emotional 45 minutes. Members of the audience were of various ages and shared their academic insight and personal connection to the play, which further grounded its intense themes.
What is especially poignant about the themes of The Madness of Hercules is how relatable they are. The participants all had a firsthand experience which connected them to the implications of gun violence in the show. Despite the disturbing reality of many Americans’ inevitable encounters with firearms, The Madness of Hercules gracefully ignited a productive and moving discourse on the plague of modern weaponry in the United States.