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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

All Our Tragic

Or: Blood, tears and bright burning hope

Sean Graney, director and adaptor of the mad and marvelous All Our Tragic wanted nothing less than to create a “contemporary Festival of Dionysus”, a time set aside from the scattered hustle and bustle of the world to eat, imbibe, catch up with old friends, listen to songs and see stories about life, the universe, and everything and maybe learn to be better people when we walked out of the theatre. Three years ago he attempted that with his production of the Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses, but now he wants to broaden his horizon (and lower his pail) by weaving a single epic out of the 32 surviving plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The result is All Our Tragic, a laughter swelled and blood glutted masterpiece; four braided sagas spliced to one strong line that holds strong for 75 years plot time, 12 hours stage time, containing 8 acts, 23 actors, and 59 deaths. I say, Bring. It. On.

Now for some of us ( a great deal of us, in fact) the thought of sitting in a theatre for 12 hours, even for the most exciting or touching, or laugh yourself sick productions, possess a kind of horror. But Graney and his legion of helpmeets from the Hypocrites have your comfort in mind first and foremost (okay, perhaps not when it comes to our squeamish sensibilities, ...). No single act runs above an hour and 25 minutes, and all are interspersed with 15 minute breaks (including a half-hour lunch break, and hour long dinner break) where you can get your heart rate down, weep, swap seats and seek solace in the free snacks, Mediterranean food, and beverages provided. Also if you cannot spare a Saturday or Sunday, the company runs the four Stories or Parts of All Our Tragic during the week. You’ll miss a lot of the follow through (the sense of scope and scale, one generation handing down weapons, royal tokens, legacies, and running gags) but each story is a wonder in its own right and well worth its salt (and you get the chance to Collect’em All!).

This being a Hypocrites production, “A Theatre of Honesty”, there are a lot of nudge-nudging and pointed fingers at the artifice of it all. Items fall from the ceiling, the cast is bedecked in outrageous costumes, and peculiar modern mannerisms of both speech and action. The attention to detail, in not only suiting the needs of the world but changing as it changes year to year and story to story, is a wonder to behold. Graney has also made a lot of changes to the old stories (especially in fourth act) so be prepared for wild character interpretations and surpassing deaths.

But for all the shifting and fluffing up and merry making All Our Tragic is serious business. Graney and his cast are more interested in getting us to laugh or cry. It was at the Dionysian Festivals that questions were raised for the citizens to consider: what is a morally right action? How do you live with a terrible mistake? How do you forgive an unforgivable wrong? How should a government rule over its people, or a someone interact with their family? Is there a difference between acting smart and mutual need here: they require not our applause but our attention, needing us to heed these stories for our own benefit, to redeem all the horror that we see. This is especially clear in what has been done with the Philosophy speeches, where characters will clash weighty advice with the conviction of (and sometimes prelude to) weaponry. In the original Greek Tragedies, if badly done, these are dull moments, where we see painted shadows of philosophies dukeing it out to death. Under Graney’s cultivation, these arguments and pondering help to flesh out the character and bring them into sharper focus: they aren’t philosophizing, they are fighting for their lives and souls with words.

And what a bold and generous cast to take these words and characters and run with them. 23 actors in 65 roles; a veritable treasure trove of mental skill, physical stamina and emotional dexterity. Guided by our gentle gondoliers the Odd-Jobs (Erin Myers, Lauren Vogal, and Kate Carson-Groner) who provide an astonishing wide array musical accompaniment (everything from old fashioned rock to folk songs to a rendition of “The Flower Song” from Lakme that will simply take your breath away) the company tumbles from one role to another with never a lost step or overshot joke. Too many to illuminate justly, but among the best of the best are:

Dana Omar (Médée, Cruesa, Kalchas, and Cousin Dolon), who can unpack the radioactive bitterness of Médée, that most unfortunate of women, screen it with a smile and leave it twice as sharp with the lisping queen Cruesa, and then wriggle away into adorable creatures like the bat-child seer Kalchas. It takes great skill to be able to hold present such bright emotional power and then filter it through so many prisms.

Ezekiel Sulk (Agieus, Kreon and Neotolemus), a man who knows his way around comedic suffering. In each of this incarnations he uses is lightning fast patter to vein his torments with superbly crafted woe-to-me’isms that serve both to bring us to stitches and make his troubles that much more horrible.

Tien Doman (Klytaimnestra, Djanira, Odessa and Glauke), whose talent for earnest agreeableness (she has the distinct style of a 40’s film heroine) transforms into real happy-go-lucky heroism or pitiable villainy and then turn again to something else infinitely more astute, all together,

Walter Briggs (Herakles, Pentheus the Guant, Agamemnon), carries out a remarkable blend of subtly and over-the-topness. His incredibly dim but immensely likable Herakles and his smoothly eloquent but utterly irredeemable Agamemnon (I guarantee it, before part 3 is done, you’ll long for his death, like the way you long for water when your thirsty) slowly transform so that by the end for their stories you want to kick the one and pet the other and yet still remember all they did before.

Luce Metrius (Jason, Haemon, Grouchy Glenus, Achilles), a mutable actor who’s power is no less apparent in the criminally adorable Haemon as in the full and lusty voice and sword sharp humor of the great Achilles.

And Christine Stulik (Phédre, Ctessipos, Jokasta and Kasssandra), effortless in her flow twixt comedy and tragedy. Whether playing Phédre at her most waggish or Kassandra facing the destruction of her body and the breaking of her soul, she manages to keep a tight string of fear vibrating behind the smiles or a zinging snarky comment before the tears. It gives the gentleness a tremor of terror that makes us quake and the hopeless a ragged banner of definace that we put our hearts out to: and both signify that the artist is living fully in the work and loves what she’s doing.

The Four Stories that make up the evening stand as follows.

Part 1: Physics (or “Ha-Haaaaaaaay!”)

The Legends of Herakles (Walter Briggs) the dim but good hearted hero as he seeks to protect his friends and family from the schemes of his evil cousin Necromancer cousin Eurystheus (Maximillian Lapine), defend the beautiful Seven Sister’s (who’s fates create the through line of all four stories), and find some way to being worthy of remembrance under the exasperated mentorship of Prometheus (Geoff Button). There is also the sweetly bitter and bitterly sweet story of blood-sisters Médée (Dana Omar) and Phérdre (Christine Stulik) running from the incest pact of latter’s father, the Minotaur, and finding themselves, prodded by love and righteousness, stepping down the petal strewn paths to horrific deeds and horrific fates.

To my mind (and feel free, dear reader, to come so you can debate me on this to) this is both the sweetest and the humorous of the stories, where dismemberment (props to props designer Danielle Case) and death are either tinged with humor or wreathed in a grace (as much as getting stabbed, clubbed or poisoned can be graceful). It’s a good old story of good verses evil, but taking the time to really ask what is a hero, or a heroic deed, or a heroic sacrifice, and can we ever find peace after making a horrible mistake.

Part 2: Politics (or “The dust of the past cannot settle without a burial”)

A sharper and more modern world, Part 2 deals with Kreon (Ezekiel Sulkes), prince of Thebes. In a city rife with political unrest, sick with plague, impending civil war, and a royal family which “dysfunctional” does not even begin to describe, Kreon must find a way to deal with all the troubles including his mad father Cadmus (Danny Goodman), his former lover Tiresias the seer (Lindsey Gavel), his adoptive son Haemon (Luce Metrius), his loving but troubled sister and brother-in-law Jokasta and Oedipus (Christine Stulik and John Taflan) and his arch-nemesis niece, the righteous Antigone (Erin Barlow).

This is considerably darker, grittier, and more toothsome drama. Instead of broad gestures and quests and sacrifices we have self-doubt and struggle, bitterness. A cyclical look at Absolute Control and Anarchy in a society, and that niggling question of what one must do in one’s duty “Whether it is better to be Friendly, Feared or Faithful.” The grand fights yield to brutal, totally unglamorous deaths by blunt instrument, corrosive poison, and drill (ooh, that drill. As soon as it came on stage: Chekov’s Drill). But worse than than even the drill, were the little gestures of cruelty and hopelessness and solace come to late, that strike you across the face and leave the best, bitter tasting tang in your mouth.

Part 3: Patriotics (or “War is like a birthday, only instead of presents you get dead friends.”)

The story of the Trojan War, in all its red rimmed horror. We see it through the eyes of Neoptolemus (Ezekeil Sulkes), the son of Achilles. Born in a war and not understanding it struggling to make sense of it, we see him struggle to define honor and necessity, cruelty and mercy. drifting like a small boat in a violent sea without sail or rudder. From the sacrifice of Iphigenia (Linsey Gavel) to the razing of the great city: the deaths of heroes, the grand gestures, the bitter betrayals, and all the fighting (as breathtakingly choreographed by Ryan Bourque), and the corruption of men into monsters.

This is perhaps the most troubling part. Melding the heroic hopes of Part 1 and the barbed and pointed cruelties of Part 2, the actions of Troy were the most painful to witness by far. But far worse than the blood curdling violence, are the corruptions of good men and women and the mirror raised up to the future conflicts, lined up from those ancient days, to this present minute and long into the future. There are still plenty of things to laugh at: the delicious relationship troubles between Achilles (Luce Metrius) and Patroklos (John Taflan) muffin making son of Herakles, thesarcastic crackings of Philotetes (Danny Goodman) and the most terrifying herd of sheep, none of these are spared or turned to horror by Stories end. And you’ll never, never look at yarn the same way again.

Part 4: Poetics (or “Thoynoi?”)

When Agamemnon (Walter Briggs) returns hone to his family only for sis wife, Klytaimnestra (Tien Doman), to slaughter the tyrant. THeir children Elektra (Lindsey Gavel), Orestes (Geoff Button), and niece Hermione (Erin Barlow) are left to pick up the pieces of the crime. When Orestes, accompanied by his mute friend Plyades (John Taflan, in one of the funnest performances in an outrageous show) returns to pay blood for blood to his mother, he sets in motion a wheel greased in blood that will bring the whole saga to its unraveling and leave him and us with madness and perhaps... a little something more.

This is where things get really, really weird. Though its questions of revenge and justice loose none of their edge the style of telling loops back to the zaniness of Act 1 coupled with the splatter-happy aesthetics of a slasher film and a large dash of discombobulation. In a rare moment of selfishness, in what has otherwise been an open and co-dependent evening, the play seems to flick us in the eye (not unjustly) for the complacency and even joy we’ve taken in death and dismemberment thus far. It dissolves into a Ionesco comedy, absurd and trying to make a point about absurdity: full of weighty but unwieldy words, snarled into a tangle we have no time to unpick.

I must confess, dear reader, I did not lap up or feel profound catharsis in every moment in all our tragic. There were moments, particularly in Part Four, where I could but tilt my head and mouth, “what?” at what mere moments before had fired my mind and wounded my heart. 12 hours is too long to be brim stuffed with theatrical treasure. But as wise Odessa (Tien Doman) says, “If you read a 1,200 page book and only liked 1,150 pages of it, would that stop you from recommending that book to acquaintances?” Though at times slippery and uncomfortably clammy, the hand of All Our Tragic is a strong and friendly one that will tickle you into hysterics and hold yours firmly as you watch the pleasant fantasies of the world get winnowed and ripped away, to reveal the stark horror beneath. And in its final moments, it pulls away those horrors too, raises us from darkness, and makes all right again, that you may exit those doors in courage an in hope.

The best words I can use to describe All Our Tragic are the words of Graney himself. He threads his story together with a line at the beginning and end of each story, a moment to breath and think about what is to come and what has past: stasis and new stasis. It’s said in many different ways but always addresses the world, “We become it, it becomes us.” That is the foundation of the whole enterprise, the whole festival, every bit of theatre, a sharing of stories, of enthusiasms, an uncorking of feelings and airings of the questions we can never find the right words to ask. In its jokes both flatfooted and nimble, in its twists both heart pounding and head scratching, in all its wounds, All Our Tragic is one of the finest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. I would gladly sit through twelve hours of heart ache again, and again, and I know each time I would rise to clap thinking, “This is why these stories have survived. This is why we should take the time to listen to them. This is what theater should truly be.”

Warnings: features intense violence, strobe lights, nudity, and wide reaching splatters of mud, blood, cake, and the occasional flying arm.

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