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Show Time Again at Roman Colosseum

July 19, 2000

ROME (AP) _ After nearly 1,500 years, it’s show time again at the Roman Colosseum. Spectators are bustling into the ancient arena, performers are fending off stage fright.

But the show this time is supremely civilized: Classical Greek tragedy instead of gladiators and gore. No howling Roman mobs, no snarling wild beasts.

The National Theater of Greece’s striking production of ``Oedipus Rex″ christens an eight-year restoration of the Colosseum capped by the replacement of part of the arena’s long-missing floor.

About one-seventh of the original arena’s floor space is now covered, leaving open the vast subterranean labyrinth that once housed animals, gladiators, sets and props.

The stage makes it possible for the first time in centuries to stand where gladiators once stood, gazing up at the towering tiers of the ancient amphitheater.

Even the cast and crew of Oedipus were a bit awe-struck by the astonishing venue.

``This grandeur, this strength! The strength of the Romans,″ Jenny Gaitanapoulou, the veteran Cypriot actress who plays Jocasta, the mother/wife of Oedipus, exclaimed at dress rehearsal Tuesday.

``Oepidus Rex,″ starting a three-day run Wednesday, is the first of a trilogy of Sophocles’ tragedies in the Colosseum this summer. It will be followed by ``Antigone″ and the opera ``Oedipus,″ an adaptation of the play ``Oedipus in Colonus.″

For many people involved in the Sophocles project, the performances are a way of infusing the ancient killing ground with a new spirit. Culture Minister Giovanna Melandri said the trilogy brings the Colosseum back to life, but ``not for cruelty. It’s for art.″

Tens of thousands of lives were sacrificed in the arena to entertain the bloodthirsty Roman crowds and it could take more than eight summer nights of Sophocles to banish the ghosts. But people like Oedipus star Grigoris Valtinos have faith in their art.

``It’s a victory for the theater to play in this place,″ the actor said at dress rehearsal. ``This place is full of blood. But I hope to fill it with soul.″

It’s not clear whether the Colosseum will become a regular performance venue. Melandri called the Sophocles series an ``experiment.″

Experts will have to assess the wear and tear, she said. And even more important is the unique nature of the place; some preservationists are already complaining.

``We don’t want to overuse it,″ Melandri said in an interview. ``We want to keep it special.″

A symbol of the Roman Empire’s magnificence and might, the Colosseum was inaugurated in A.D. 80 with immense fanfare: 100 days of gladiatorial combat that cost thousands of lives. The last games were in 523.

It is an enormous structure, even to modern eyes: more than two football fields long, 1,730 feet in circumference, 164 feet high. In ancient times it had 80 arched entrances and could seat at least 50,000 people. The oval arena was 29,000 square feet.

The new stage is 4,305 square feet and audience space is limited _ room for about 700 people, many of them standing.

Director Vassilis Papavasiliou unites ancient and modern in this production, which travels to New York’s City Center in October, then to Mexico, Chile, Brazil and Argentina.

Against the magnificent backdrop of the Colosseum ruins, the cast plays out Oedipus’ tragedy in modern Greek among dozens of ghostly plaster figures, many in contemporary dress.

Hobbling on ebony canes, an equally ghostly, white-robed chorus fades in and out of this forest of silent witnesses, its words and the sparse modern music urging the drama on to its inexorable conclusion.

The Colosseum was designed for blood sports and leaves a lot to be desired as a theater. Papavasiliou said acoustics were a problem and microphones had to be positioned at strategic points on the stage.

Modern Rome compounded the problem with an urban symphony of honking horns, airplanes overhead and ambulances wailing in the night.

But, as one of the stars said, you don’t play the Colosseum every day. A little background noise, a smallish stage and crummy acoustics are a small sacrifice.

``You experience it once in a lifetime,″ Gaitanapoulou said, as she prepared to transform herself into Jocasta and stride onstage.

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