Science does battle with sorcery at Venus Theater

Matthew Marcus and Ann Fraistat in "Aglaonike's Tiger"
Matthew Marcus and Ann Fraistat in "Aglaonike's Tiger" (Courtesy Photo/Mike Landsman /)

For the grown-ups, "Aglaonike's Tiger" has Ann Fraistat portraying a no-nonsense Greek astronomer beset on all sides by dubious mythmaking, magic and mumbo jumbo.

For the kids, the play has Matthew Marcus in a captivating role as Aglaonike's fanged and striped companion.


The play, which runs at Laurel's Venus Theatre through Oct. 1, depicts the emergence of realit-based reasoning in an ancient Greece where magical thinking explains just about everything.

Aglaonike, an historical character chronicled by the historian Plutarch, was both a woman at a time when women's claims to mathematical skill were dismissed and a scientist when there was only one answer to inexplicable phenomena -- the gods did it.


As the play opens, Aglaonike's ability to predict a lunar eclipse baffles some local witches, who assume she could only predict it because she caused it.

Our heroine crosses paths with all manner of enchantresses and sorceresses. Some are charlatans soaking the rubes for a few drachmas. "We want them scared, but not scared away. Scared away doesn't pay the rent," one tells Aglaonike.

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Meanwhile, there's the heroine's constant companion, a cub she raises to a full-grown tiger. The feline slinks, pounces and even takes to the dance floor for a tango when a female tiger comes on the scene.

It is left unsaid whether the tiger is a stand-in for a male human companion for Aglaonike, but it's worth pondering. Certainly, Aglaonike is bereft when he runs off with the female feline. "Without him, I am incomplete," she says.

Playwright Claudia Barnett doesn't want the audience to dismiss myth and imagination out of hand. Toward the end, the moon goddess Selene suggests that women share a "female prerogative." She explains, "A woman likes to have her secrets."

Barnett told dramaturge Heather Belinsky in an interview that the meditative and bemused Aglaonike presents a contrast to the bloodthirsty female characters in other Greek dramas, such as Clytemnestra and Medea.

"Aglaonike, by contrast, is a role model," Barnett said.

Deborah Randall, Venus founder, who portrays Erichtho in the play, said she chose "Aglaonike's Tiger" for Venus' 2017 season because "it's about feeling a reality you cannot prove."

Plutarch said Aglaonike's scientific claims gave rise to a Greek saying that the moon "obeys" her, which is meant as mockery. Our current reality-based community, of course, smiles indulgently at the scorn a long-gone society had for the wisdom found in both women and science.

Perhaps, however, we smirk at the past at our peril.

Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday through Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at the 30-seat Venus Theatre, 21 C St. in Laurel. Tickets are $40 general admission, $20 for members. Go to www.venustheatre.org or call 202-236-4078.

The Venus Theatre's next production, "The Ravens" by Alana Valentine, begins Nov. 2.

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