Epic Win

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Sometimes Chicago can be a city of theatrical size queens.  And no, gutter-dwellers, it’s not what you think.  Over the past several years the city has seen ambitious, grandiose, unapologetically lengthy theatrical events:  in 2009, the Neo-Futurists put on a six-hour deconstruction of Strange Interlude as part of the Goodman Theater’s Eugene O’Neill festival; just last year, The Building Stage mounted a non-operatic, movement-based, six-hour condensation of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle while Steppenwolf Theater staged Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unforgettable The Brother/Sister Plays over two evenings.  So The Hypocrites’ four-hour Sophocles:  Seven Sicknesses, an adaptation of all seven existing Sophocles plays (Oedipus, In Trachis, In Colonus, Philoctetes, Ajax, Elektra, and Antigone) by Founding Artistic Director Sean Graney should be a cakewalk.  But I still came to the production with a little trepidation – really, four hours of Greek tragedy, with its unceasing bloodthirstiness, its outrageous melodrama, its hysterical reliance on oracles, choruses, and incestuous relatives, and its archaic speech patterns can send even the most jaded, committed theatergoer (well, me) screaming towards the exit pulling their hair and scratching their eyes out.  Also, I am a huge, like really huge, fan of Sean Graney, and greatly and deeply admire his tremendous love for theater, his imagination, and his ballsiness; when he succeeds (Edward II, The Mystery of Irma Vep, 4.48 Psychosis), in my opinion, there is no one more creative and ovation-worthy in this town.  When he doesn’t quite succeed though (uhmm, Frankenstein?), even his biggest fans (well, me) will be running screaming towards those exits as well.  His production of Oedipus a couple of years ago was compelling but it was also marred, in my opinion, by messy symbolism and precocious hipsterism.  Well, I am very happy to report that despite (spoiler alert) being showered by stage blood and dirt, I didn’t run towards any exit in the course of Graney’s four-hour epic.  Actually, I wasn’t even aware that four hours had passed, since Sophocles:  Seven Sicknesses is fresh, funny, brave, accomplished, resonant, beautifully and ambitiously written, a perfect match between the source material and the sensibility of the writer-director and his theater company.  Honestly, I could have sat at the Chopin basement theater for another four hours – the show was that good.

Graney’s brazen imagination and cultural savviness is on full display at Sophocles:  Seven Sicknesses.  Since these plays are full of people killing each other and mutilating themselves, why not set the entire show in a stark hospital with two wise-cracking, fashion-magazine-reading nurses (delightfully played by Sarah Jackson and Shannon Matesky) as the Greek chorus? Brilliant.  Because Sophocles’ tragedies come about mostly due to a singular flaw of human nature (Antigone’s pride, Elektra’s vengefulness, Oedipus’ incredulity), why not have the actors sing excerpts from Bruce Springsteen’s acclaimed early-80s album about the tragi-comic nature of day-to-day life, The River, newly-arranged by Music Director Kevin O’Donnell, to annotate and expand on the original text?  Inspired.  Why not include dialogue that is modern, colloquial, and plainspoken to bridge the audience-distancing effect of these ancient plays?  Terrific.  Why not embrace the outre in the material by having Jocasta commit suicide by drinking bleaching liquid or staging Ajax’s dream of killing his competitors as a sort of bloody, wacky Animal Farm?  Absolutely.  But I think Graney’s greatest achievement as writer-adapter-director is his ability to clearly, painstakingly highlight the significant, recurring themes of these plays over these four hours, some of them unique to the Greeks (the physical body as symbol and source of power, fatalism as a cultural world-view), others universal and relevant to us, the 21st century citizens of a complex, chaotic, conflict-ridden world: the continuing definition and re-definition of homeland, the basis for exercising state power within and outside its borders, our inability to learn from our mistakes which allows, well, history to repeat itself.  The bloody and blind Oedipus who is willing to once again put his trust in Creon, the man who banished him, in order to come back to his beloved Thebes demonstrates the same inherently fatal flaw of human nature that many 21st century US voters seem to possess in making another self-interested, zealous Texan a presidential front-runner.

Graney’s marvelous, brave, resilient cast, many of them playing multiple roles, is up to Graney’s game, displaying impressive range.  Hypocrites’ ensemble member Geoff Button, truly one of my all-time favorite performers in Chicago, is poignant as the compassionate Neoptolemus asked to trick Philoktetes to give up his powerful bow and quietly menacing as the vengeful Orestes.  Erin Barlow is heart-breakingly headstrong as Antigone and impeccably comedic as a Reese Witherspoon-like Chrysothemis.  The always spectacular Tien Doman gives a quite-over-the-top take on Dejanira, giving her the bitchy claws of a Bravo Real Housewife and the lonely anger of a Lars von Trier heroine.  Jeff Trainor is just plain terrific as Oedipus, thrillingly mixing naivete, young CEO bluster, and delusion.

In our age of Politico.com soundbytes, Twitter headlines, and general restlessness and instantaneous gratification, it’s hard to recommend a night out in the theater that will involve more than two and a half hours (including an intermission).  Well, I don’t really care, and at the risk of being pilloried by some of my attention-deficient blog readers, I am heartily, enthusiastically, unreservedly recommending Sophocles:  Seven Sicknesses.  It’s a play that a theater-loving city such as Chicago should embrace unconditionally.

I’m ready to call a plague down on your condo building if you don’t rush out to see Sophocles:  Seven Sicknesses at the Chopin basement theater, 1543 W. Division St.  Ok, so if that threat isn’t enough, well remember there is a complimentary, and very yummy, vegan dinner courtesy of Sultan’s Market during the first intermission!

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