Actress, prostitute, eventual empress, reviled to this day by the Eastern Orthodox church, Theodora is an ideal subject for a play. Her story–a humble birth, a wild youth, an adulthood sharing the reign of the most powerful man in what was left of the Roman Empire, Justinian–is certainly sexy enough. But playwright Jamie Pachino has gone the story one better: in true postmodern fashion, Pachino has made not just Theodora’s life but her myth the subject of this play.
Theodora shares the stage with four scholars who claim to be experts on her life, including her contemporary Procopius, whose book The Secret History recounts in vivid detail Theodora’s lascivious adventures. (“Never,” he writes in one of his less graphic moments, “was anyone so completely given up to unlimited self-indulgence.”) For two acts these scholars and Theodora squabble over what Theodora was really like: whether she was a whore or not, a sexual monster or the victim of Procopius’s wrath; whether her reign was just or cruel.
With considerable help from director Shira Piven and a terrific cast, Pachino moves through what could have been dry-as-dust arguments about historiography with an extraordinary grace, intelligence, and wit. She covers all the questions that bedevil postmodern historians–what is history? whose story is being told? how much do a historian’s background and assumptions influence what he or she writes?–and still leaves room for lots of laughs and a moving scene or two, particularly on the subject of Theodora’s relationship with Justinian, who loved her to the end.