Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sophocles and Sickness and Classics Reclassified

These Seven Sicknesses at the Flea Theater on White Street (TriBeCa, roughly) is Sean Graney's revision of the seven surviving Sophocles tragedies into one very long and involved play (four and a half hours, with dinner break and bad Thai food served to fill it) that begins with the epidemic of Oedipus the King and concludes with the attempt of Oedipus' daughter, Antigone, to spare the city both dishonor and contagion by burying her slain brother, Polynices. Besides the Oedipus trilogy, the seven plays include three plays involving the enormous Trojan War mythos and one play (Trachis) about Herakles, peripheral to these two sagas but linked through the figure of Philoctetes. (Is he even in the Sophocles text? That's the sort of detail with which Graney plays very fast and very loose.)

In Chicago, at the work's premiere, this was performed by an eight-actor troupe, which could be great fun (I remark, having delighted in the six-actor-and-a-versatile-box Cymbeline recently staged by Fiasco Theater), but at the Flea they have a very young 40-actor band so none of the roles need to double up (which is good, since many of the roles appear in more than one play: Oedipus, Antigone, Creon, Philoctetes, Odysseus), and they tend to be young, fit, attractive, talented, unclothed and covered in gore. The gore that was kept offstage in Ancient Greece is something modern audiences accept, indeed expect, so - bring it on. There is also one mad action scene, the massacre by Ajax of the sheep he, driven mad, believes to be his fellow Greeks, a scene that precedes the opening of Sophocles' Ajax and took up a bit too much time in Sicknesses.

I attended this, in part, because I like to see (technically) hot young actors strut their stuff in the classics, and in part because I hope to see all of the surviving Greek tragedies someday. There are only 32 or so. (I haven't seen any of the Roman tragedies - they are hardly ever given.) My score is rather high, if one includes - versions - musicalizations. My Sophocles record is excellent:

1) Oedipus the King - Saw a film of it (Irene Pappas?), and Stravinsky's opera.
2) Oedipus at Colonus - The Gospel at Colonus at BAM. (Sophocles done as a gospel church music service - thrilling!)
3) Antigone - Saw the Anouilh version (pointedly commenting on the Vichy regime) on television once. Otherwise, Graney's is my first.
4) Ajax - Some theater company on Wooster Street did this a couple of years back.
5) Women of Trachis - I've seen Handel's version, Hercules, staged by Les Arts Florissants at BAM and by Peter Sellars at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Graney's is the first time I've seen it as a spoken play, but Handel is quite close, actually.
6) Electra - Besides Strauss's opera (many, many times), which is drawn from Hofmannsthal's version of Sophocles, I saw Zoe Wanamaker and Claire Bloom do it on Broadway.
7) Philoctetes - Saw this in Greek at the theater at Epidavros. Also in English a couple of times, in Seamus Heaney's translation. (Was that the Pearl?)

1) Prometheus Bound - That repertory company on East 13th Street did this recently, with a black African actor who had performed it also in London.
2) Seven Against Thebes - The only version I've seen of this on stage was Seven, a hip-hop musical, at Theater Development Workshop on East 4th. Fabulous! Great energy, hilarious mythical jokes only I got, many hip-hop jokes I'm sure I missed.
3) Suppliants - Perhaps the oldest extant Greek tragedy. A Romanian troupe brought it to the Lincoln Center Festival in 1997 (my chemotherapy summer) and I sneaked in. They mimed the stories of the other two (lost) parts of the trilogy of the Danaids, the 50 sisters forced to marry their 50 cousins, whom they murdered on the wedding night. Fascinating. Hope one day to see Salieri's first hit, Les Danaides.
4) Persians - The other candidate for "oldest extant tragedy," the only survivor about a contemporary event (the Persian defeat by Athens at Salamis). Roberta Maxwell played Atossa at Pace. The production seemed to be, a bit heavily, about our Iraq misadventure. Not crazy about this, however much I agreed with the politics.
5) Agamemnon - Saw this on television when I was about ten. It's tough going for modern audiences - we know what's going to happen - but it takes a long time to happen. And I've seen Tanayev's opera, which is actually part one of a trilogy. Oh, and I think there was a Serban version at La Mama.
6) Libation Bearers - Saw this when Ariane Mnouchkine did the Atreidae in Brooklyn (and I skipped her Agamemnon). Glorious.
7) Eumenides - Ariane Mnouchkine. I thought I was in the presence of gods.

1) Alkestis - I'm not sure I've ever seen this one staged, except as Gluck's Alceste.
2) Medea - His most popular play. Saw Judith Anderson do it on TV, Cherubini's opera, Lorraine Hunt in Charpentier's opera (more closely based on Seneca's Roman tragedy than on Euripides) and a staging by the Greek Active Theater Company in Seattle, with a chorus of the Drag Queens of Corinth lip-sync'ing "Don't Leave Me This Way." Oh, and Diana Rigg on Broadway and Fiona Shaw at BAM - but the guy in Seattle was better.
3) Hippolytus - Don't think I've ever seen this staged. Modern audiences don't like the asexual hero, sympathize more with Phaedra. Saw an opera once called Syllabaire pour Phedre. Sorry I missed the version of Phaedra that played in Princeton in November.
4) Mad Hercules - Saw this at the Fringe Festival done as a country-rock musical called Hercules in High Suburbia. They had a big, black muscular actor in the lead, and he went with it, doing Muhammad Ali all night: "I tore the Hydra limb from limb/ And I wasn't even mad at him!" Splendid.
5) Ion - Two actors did this Off Broadway a year or two ago, playing all the twenty or so roles (actors putting on the play, whose own story resembles that of the play), splendid, but incomprehensible to those who did not already know the story. (So I loved it; people beside me couldn't figure it out.)
6) Phoenician Women - That company on Wooster Street did this a few years ago. The Oedipus story boiled down, an awful lot of material in one night!
7) Electra - I think I've only seen this done as a rather humorless film. (Irene Pappas?)
8) Orestes - That company on East Thirteenth did this one a year or two back. Strange play.
9) Iphigenia in Aulis - Gluck's opera, seen in Rome with Stoyanova and Gubanova. Terrific show. Also saw Ariane Mnouchkine's splendid version, attached to the Atreidae.
10) Iphigenia in Taurus - Gluck's opera, seen at NYCO and the Met, and an even sexier staging at the Manhattan School of Music.
11) Helen in Egypt - I've seen Strauss's opera, which is quite different from Euripides. But someone is staging the play in Manhattan, I seem to recall.
12) Suppliant Women - Haven't seen it. Always get it confused with Heracleidae.
13) Bacchae - Took part in a production at school in Greece. Saw it a couple of times since then, never successfully (in my view). Also: Dionysus in '69, a memorable teenage night - I'd never seen classic plays done that way! And now everyone does them that way - Seven Sicknesses is a direct descendant.
Have taken part in several pagan readings of the Arthur Evans version of the script, usually as Pentheus - because his were the issues I felt I needed to address, meditate, consider. But now I think it's time I took on Dionysus. Until David Ives's Venus in Fur, in which Pentheus is a masochistic playwright, Dionysus is now Venus (or an actress playing her) - as with Mnouchkine, I felt I was in the presence of a deity, or of a human possessed of deity. Best Bacchae EVER! The opera by Szymanowski (King Roger) is not especially dramatic.
14) Trojan Women - Best version I've seen was the Andrei Serban version at La Mama that combined the play with Hecuba and was not in any comprehensible language.
15) Andromache - Rossini's Ermione, one of his finest tragedies.
16) Heracleidae - Never seen it.
17) Hecuba - Saw Vanessa Redgrave do this, not too effectively, and the version combined with Trojan Women by Serban.
18) Rhesus - Not really Euripides and, anyway, never staged.
19) Cyclops - Saw this done as a rock opera this last fall. Terrific!

So someone has to do Heracleidae and Suppliant Women. That's all there is to it. Has to.

I have also seen a few Aristophanes comedies, no Menander though.
Aristophanes' comedy is even more obscure to modern ears than the tragedians' tragedies.
1) Lysistrata - The most popular. Besides a staging or two, I loved Schubert's operetta, The Ladies' War.
2) Peace - My first Al Carmines musical was his version of this play.
3) Birds - Have the video of Braunfels' lovely operatic version, Die Vögel.
4) Clouds - Was this the one? Some little company staged it with a woman in the leading (male) role.
5) Frogs - Very popular nowadays, but no one has found a successful equivalent to the Aeschylus-Euripides contest that is the body of the play. Most recently seen at that company on East Thirteenth Street on a hot tip from the usually reliable Michael Feingold. Not good.
Haven't seen the rest.