Stage & Dance

Review: 'Herostratus' mines comedy from tragedy of outsize ego

Timothy Hull plays the title role in Balagula Theatre's Forget Herostratus, which opens  Sunday. It is the latest in a line of recent stage roles for the Lexington actor.
Timothy Hull plays the title role in Balagula Theatre's Forget Herostratus, which opens Sunday. It is the latest in a line of recent stage roles for the Lexington actor. Lexington Herald-Leader

Long before the Internet and reality TV made instant celebrities out of ego-crazed fame seekers, a young Greek man named Herostratus walked into one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and burned it to the ground.

Was he angry at the goddess for some misfortune in his life? Was he trying to make some kind of symbolic political statement? Was he angry at his fellow citizens' unfair treatment of him and seeking revenge?

Nah. He just wanted to be famous.

And even though Ephesian authorities tried to erase him from history by forbidding his name to be mentioned under penalty of death, Herostratus achieved his goal of historical immortality.

Russian playwright Grigory Gorin drew artistic inspiration from this ancient breach of morality in his play Forget Herostratus, the latest installment of thought-provoking drama courtesy of Balagula Theatre.

Smart and lithely funny, Forget Herostratus has potent, morally engrossing performances from some of the area's best talent and handily hooks the audience into Gorin's entertaining but disturbing plot.

Director Natasha Williams is clear in her director's notes that Gorin used the tale to artistically draw a parallel between the ancient arsonist and 20th-century demagogues Hitler and Stalin, ordinary citizens with few leadership qualifications other than abundant charisma, uncanny insight into human behavior and the arrogant will to manipulate historical events in their favor.

This is achieved in part by briefly allowing audio clips of Hitler's speeches to waft into the theater before the show takes root. And then, Timothy Hull enters as Herostratus.

Arrogant, smug and reeking of the ugliest kind of presumed entitlement, Herostratus is just the kind of self-aggrandizing twerp who ruins life for everybody. He is why we can't have nice things.

Hull's complexly drawn Herostratus isn't your garden-variety attention-seeking imbecile, but a highly skilled manipulator of people and situations whose egomaniacal methods, if allowed to remain unchecked, threaten to unravel the fabric of society.

What begins with a small bribe to the jailer, played with oafish panache by James Hamblin, swells into larger and larger bribes and business deals and, eventually, enough emotional and political blackmail to lure the king of Ephesus himself into Herostratus' manipulative snare, all orchestrated from a tiny prison cell. Hull's psychologically fascinating Herostratus eventually comes to represent more than his literal character. He is a testament to the power of human cunning when coupled with a complete lack of fear and a malleable conscience.

Ed Desiato is a powerful foil as Cleon, the city's oldest and most respected judge. Desiato has the chops to play Cleon with requisite gravitas and, despite reaching for a line or two at times, he more than delivers. He alone stands up for the moral absolute, demonstrating a commitment to the law and the city of Ephesus so passionate that it is both admirable and tragically naive, making his self-betrayal (or act of heroism, depending on one's interpretation) in the show's final moments doubly jarring.

The show engages some of the most deeply haunting aspects of humanity and its history, but somehow, amazingly, it is routinely hilarious. Gorin is one of those rare playwrights who can use humor (and not dark humor, but laugh-out-loud humor) to more fully draw audiences into the meat of a weightier script.

Williams capitalizes on this in her direction of Tissafernes, ruler of Ephesus, and his wife, Clementina, two less-than-royal personalities whose vacuous or weak- minded quirks can be exploited for comedy gold. Actors Pete Sears and Jessee Pavlovic earned some of the opening-night audience's heartiest guffaws in their portrayal of a wimpy king who would rather be fishing and his young, vanity-crazed consort.

Williams also deserves praise for her innovative treatment of an external character called "the Man of the Theatre," one of the play's unique constructs. An impartial observer from contemporary times, the Man of the Theatre exists only on the outskirts of the play, occasionally interjecting questions or observations from offstage, providing a lens of modernity to the ancient tale. I was impressed that Williams chose a woman, Jenny Christian, to play this role, casually dressing her in modern attire, arming her with a notebook and situating her near the audience, where we all, presumably, play similar roles.

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