All Our Tragic
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Sean Graney's monster mash-up of every extant Greek tragedy remains more than worth half your weekend.
The best play and most unique theatrical experience of 2014 returns in a remount that's somewhat streamlined but has lost none of its incredible power. Yes, the Hypocrites' mash-up of all 32 surviving Greek tragedies into one unwinding story still takes 12 hours to take in, give or take.
But some judicious trims to Sean Graney's script and cast (the combat-fodder "Neo-Titans" have been excised) and a reconfigured, more coherent staging make the daylong play more intimate, and therefore even more of a bonding experience for the community comprising the audience and actors alike. The heady contrast between the unending human tragedy of the plot(s) and the giddy, cathartic joy of their telling makes Year Two feel like another day in paradise.
My full review of the 2014 staging follows below.
The Hypocrites at the Den Theatre. Written and directed by Sean Graney. With ensemble cast. Running time: 12hrs; seven intermissions.
Though the bar in the Den Theatre’s striking new street-level mainstage had brunchy Bloody Marys and mimosas on offer before the 11am start of the Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic Sunday morning, I stuck to water and a $2 “bottomless” coffee until the piece’s final intermission, 11 hours later, when I allowed myself a beer. Yet even a teetotaler would surely feel a little happily drunk on sheer storytelling ambition by the culmination of Sean Graney’s stunning achievement, adapting all 32 surviving Greek tragedies into an eight-act, 12-hour, often surprisingly funny and totally singular experience.
Three years ago, Graney staged an impressive adaptation of Sophocles’ seven extant plays, titling it Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses. Almost immediately afterward, he began work on folding in the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides as well to craft a single narrative piece.
All Our Tragic takes shape as four movements, we’ll call them, of two acts each; they’re introduced by a chipper trio of “Odd-Jobbers” (Erin Myers, Lauren Vogel and Kate Carson-Groner) who also provide musical accompaniment in the form of folk songs and lullabies: “All the Pretty Horses,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Shenandoah.”
The chorus gives each movement a p-word name. The first, “Physics,” establishes the origins of Graney’s world, in which Phèdre (Christine Stulik), Médée (Dana Omar) and Agave (Emily Casey) are among a storied family of seven sisters crucial to the dawn of Athens; they age at half the rate of regular mortals and are prophesied to die in the order of their birth. Herakles (Walter Briggs) performs his labors and tries repeatedly to free an unwilling Prometheus (Geoff Button), while Theseus (Ryan Bourque) kills the minotaur and becomes king.
Part two, “Politics,” covers the squabbling and scrambling among the royal family of Thebes Graney chronicled in Seven Sicknesses, leading into the third movement, “Patriotics,” which encompasses the Trojan War. Part four, “Poetics,” follows Agamemnon back home to continue and finally conclude the curse on the House of Atreus.
As in Seven Sicknesses, Graney shows greater concern for the spirit of his source material than for its letter. He works in contemporary vernacular and sets his retellings somewhere outside of time, with the adapter and his designers cleverly cherry-picking artifacts from across two and a half millennia. Briggs’s Herakles is inspired by the Little Golden Book of heroics he carries in a pocket of his cargo shorts; when we meet Kreon (Ezekiel Sulkes) at the top of part two, he’s a bespoke-suited, Starbucks-clutching political operative. Helen (Casey again), the youngest of the Seven Sisters and the spark of the Trojan War, is a gum-smacking socialite reminiscent of Rachel Zoe who prompts Hector (Danny Goodman) to ask with exasperation why she “talk[s] to everyone like you’re their kindergarten teacher?”
Briggs may play Herakles (and Pentheus the Gaunt and Agamemnon), but all 23 cast members perform a Herculean task here. The 14 core actors each play three or more full lead roles, with many turns so strong it’s impossible to single anyone out for special merit. Luce Metrius essays both a sweet-as-pie, tortoise-toting Haemon and ultimate badass warrior Achilles; Lindsey Gavel is a female Tiresias, the blind seer who’s revealed to have a romantic past with Kreon, as well as both Iphigenia and her sister Elektra. The main cast is supported by a sextet of “Neo-Titans,” who enact much of the kinetic, blood-splattering battle scenes choreographed by Bourque, along with the musical chorus.
It’s possible to see each of the four movements individually at Friday and Monday night performances. But the marathon on Saturdays and Sundays is the way to go. The 12-hour running time may sound daunting, but it includes multiple intermissions, including long breaks for lunch, dinner and dessert, with vegetarian fare from Sultan’s Market included in the price of your ticket. None of the individual acts runs longer than 80 minutes, and the whole day seems to go by faster than some self-contained one-acts I’ve sat through.
There’s something staggering about the sheer build of story upon story in watching All Our Tragic unfold over the course of a day: seeing the long arcs of characters like Goodman’s Philoktetes or John Taflan’s Patroklos; recognizing the recurrence of totems like Herakles’ bow, Agamemnon’s trident of leadership or Orestes’ stuffed toy, Bearistophanes.
But equally important is experiencing the whole thing in the room with the same group of fellow audience members. The encouragement to try out different vantage points throughout the day, the frequent breaks, the shared meals, the sheer durational audacity of the project—they all foment a palpable shift from the individual experience to the communal.
If Seven Sicknesses had a throughline, I wrote in 2011, it was about the inevitability of violence. That certainly shows up in All Our Tragic: It’s there in the end line of “Politics,” held over from the Sophocles show, promising “there’ll be more.” It’s there too in Graney’s suggestion that the Trojan War, like many other wars, was never really about what it was said to be about. It’s there in any number of gory bloodlettings throughout the play, and it’s certainly there when a disgusted Polyxena (Erin Barlow) observes, in the divvying up of human prizes at the close of the Trojan War, that “this isn’t even the worst thing people will go through in history. This isn’t even the worst thing happening right now.”
But if there’s one theme of going through All Our Tragic in a single sitting, I think it’s the power of story itself. You find yourself talking with your neighbors about the astonishing beauty of Jared Moore’s lighting, about the endurance of the actors to do this two days in a row every weekend, about the ways these versions of the Trojan War differ from The Iliad, about how they pulled off that stage trick of the arrow piercing Achilles’ heel. During the longer breaks, some of the cast members will come out and mingle in costume or in their street clothes. By midday, you can feel a change in the air in the room; everyone is all in this together.
And by the day’s end, when Graney flips a switch that turns Orestes’ terrified flight from the Furies into an explicit examination of why we tell the stories we tell, you feel the collective experiencing an ultimate version of that classic Greek concept: catharsis.