Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This Won't End Well — Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses

The Play: Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses

The Playwright: well, Sophocles, with a very lively assist from Sean Graney

The Venue: The Chopin Theatre

The Gist: The Hypocrites Theatre Company, in the span of about four hours with two intermissions, performs Sophocles' seven surviving plays, Oedipus the King, Oedipus in Colonus, Antigone, Ajax, Philoktetes, Elektra, and Women in Trachis.

Thoughts: Sean Graney’s adapting and conjoining of these seven surviving Greek milestones is often masterful. While Graney and the cast inject a good deal of humor and quirk not in the original pieces, they mostly do so without straying too far from the dramas’ kernels, the reasons they've remained relevant for over two thousand years.

The setting is a hospital outside of time but fitted with the paraphernalia found in modern ERs. Characters from the various plays, usually while bleeding profusely, stumble in and out of the ER, at times acknowledging its and the two staff nurses’ existence, other times sure they are elsewhere, such as out in a pasture slaughtering sheep they think army bureaucrats who have recently screwed them out of their rights and glory (how things have changed in two millennia….).

Ryan Bourque, who aside from being a very charismatic and surprisingly (due to his shock of red hair and mischievous grin) protean actor, choreographed the program’s indispensable and well-executed violence. Over the course of the production he does an admirable job of playing the aloof slacker son of Heracles, a hilariously effete and dapper Theseus, and the devastated husband to the recently buried alive Antigone. After this performance, Mr. Bourque’s name on a marquee may very well be that which tips the scales on whether I attend certain productions or not.

Also on the bill is the raspy-voiced Walter Briggs, who recently co-starred with Bourque in Inconvenience's excellent production of Brett Neveu's The Earl. Briggs is a very capable actor and artfully lends his physicality and lumbering presence to his embodiments of two of the Greek’s strongest (if not brightest) heroes, Hercules and Ajax. However, be warned that Briggs possesses the sort of menacing demeanor that may give one, especially those who had a low social standing in junior high, the phantom sensation of being held upside down and shaken for change before having one’s head deposited in an active toilet bowl.
And though for me these two performers were the standouts, perhaps partially due to my growing familiarity with their work, that is not to say the rest of the cast did not offer many strong performances. Others include Jeff Trainor’s fine balancing of the blinded and bereaved Oedipus’ endless woes and Robert McLean’s resisting the slippery maudlin slope by not overstating Philoktetes’ stings from betrayal (or having one doozy of a gaping wound cauterized with a common clothes iron). Also Erin Barlow and Tien Doman give their characters a goodly blend of strength and vulnerability, all the while wielding the kingdom-damning sexual prowess thrust upon nearly all tragic Greek female roles with about as much grace as one can ask those operating such an antiquated (though integral to the plays’ surviving integrity) device. And then there’s Zeke Barlow, who in addition to his admirable comic timing, does the seemingly impossible by taking the smarminess of his Odysseus and raises it to even smarmier peaks with his Creon. Robert Downy Jr. could learn a thing or two about oozing complacency from this actor.

As for the writing itself, for even attempting such a massive undertaking Sean Graney deserves a Coke. That most of the time he pulls off his fusion of modern parlance interlaced with lines straight from the original plays (granted, after having been translated several hundred times between their inception and now) and still manages to retain the plays’ original pathos is impressive.
Yes, there are some missteps. Sometimes the bouts of one-liner zingers and fourth-wall breaking asides amass a density that would give Groucho Marx pause. And, yes, the nurses’ nearly constant presence on the stage with their incidental actions can at times be terribly distracting. But considering the production’s otherwise surefooted dialogue and pacing, its ability to remain wholly entertaining over the span of three lengthy acts, and its remaining true enough to the source material for viewers to walk away confident they are now familiar with the surviving works of one the three great Greek tragedians — well, I’d say all of this combined equals a hell of a feat.
And did I mention they serve free falafel during intermission? I should have just started there and you could have skipped the rest of the review, right?

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