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The Gods Must Be Crazed

Epic world premiere of Tantalus re-examines the greatest stories ever told

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Just what the world needs as a gift at the millennium: a ten-hour play cycle chronicling the ten-year Trojan War at a theater near you for $250 a pop.

These are the sentiments of a bevy of bikini-clad educated beauties on a Mediterranean beach when confronted by a vendor hocking images of the gods and stories these sun-bathers already know. If these women echo the audience's sentiments at the outset of the Tantalus marathon -- a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Denver Center Theatre Company --, then John Barton and Peter Hall's odyssey is off on the right foot. The sun-loving women are reluctant to give themselves over, but by the time a father's gut-wrenching decision to watch his daughter die at his own hand is played upon the stage, this chorus is ready to defy convention and break into the story on their own.

Tantalus takes its name from a king in Greek legend who was one of the few mortal guests at Zeus' exclusive banquets. He stole the nectar and ambrosia of the gods, hoping to share the staple of immortality with mankind. As punishment, Zeus sent him to eternity in Tartarus, beneath Hades. He stands in a pool of water bound to a tree of luscious fruit. When he bends to drink the water, it recedes from his hands. When he reaches for the fruit dangling from the branches, a breeze moves the fruit away. Above him a great rock is tethered and balanced, ready to fall and crush him at any moment -- whenever Zeus decides to cut the tethers. His is the fate of all mortals who dangerously presume to behave like gods before they have learned to behave like humans.

The back story to most Greek legend is a series of dizzying tales of rape and conquest, the courtship pattern of gods and heroes and men with houses named after them. Whether with a web-footed swan getting kinky with Leda or her daughters Clytemnestra and Helen being seized and raped by husbands and lovers, the play's take on history is that "bodies in bed are what make kingdoms." Any triviality with regard to the sexual violence is forever dispensed of in the sixth play in the cycle, when the graphic treatment of the captive Trojan women is played out on the stage with disturbing detail.

So it is in keeping with a long legendary tradition when Paris, prince of Troy, passes up entreaties from competing goddesses, turning down Hera's wealth and power and Athena's wisdom in favor of mighty Aphrodite's promise of beauty in the love of Helen. The war that follows establishes playwright John Barton's pattern of emphasizing image.

Director Peter Hall's use of theatrical masks gives this production an otherworldly quality. The mythical figures in the storyteller's narrative come to animated life behind the simple traditional masks that help channel the heroic spirits through their earthly conductors. The mask is a necessarily fixed image, capturing the essence and breadth of a character in a single expression and calling for a different sense of movement, a vocabulary of physical expression that supplements the evocative eyes and mouths with a distinctive and stylized dialogue in the language of the body.

Nobody exemplifies this approach to acting better than Greg Hicks in the roles of Agamemnon, Priam and Menelaus. Hicks' Agamemnon moves like a dancer, slow and measured. He is always leaning, it seems, reaching, stepping forward, embodying expectation, lingering on the brink of something. When he reaches out to touch a stag he slaughtered in Artemis' sacred grove, he reaches with the hereditary grasp of his great-grandfather Tantalus, desperately trying to slow his motions enough so that he can creep up on that which keeps receding before him. It is a fitting character choice for Agamemnon to externalize this physicality of his eternally tantalized ancestor.

His deeply resonant voice evokes the play's most emotional moments as he wrestles with the unbearable cost of sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to appease the offended Artemis and secure a favorable wind to set sail for Troy. The climax, however, comes in the seventh play of the cycle, after Troy has been won by Agamemnon. He confronts Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba who has been cursed by Apollo to have the gift of prophecy but to never be believed by those she says sooths to. Back on the war-torn burned-over beach, Agamemnon finally breaks out of the story's boundaries. Recalling Iphigenia's advice to him, he tells Cassandra that "though the gods control our beginnings and our endings, the middle of the story is ours and it's open." There is an emotional undressing as he boldly starts to take his story into his own hands. The man who sacrificed his daughter for a cool sea breeze to Troy is learning how much the middle matters.

In the wake of the brutal branding of the enslaved Trojan women, Agamemnon is reluctant to remove Cassandra's mask as she asks him to do. "I would never do that," he whispers. "It would be a kind of rape." But when he does remove the mask it is the most intimate and beautiful moment of love making imaginable. Eight hours into the cycle, the audience gasps as Cassandra's face is revealed. She struggles for new breath, freed of the imprisonment of her image. She is a new character, liberated from her history, beckoning Agamemnon to join her in this most magical of theatrical effect, changing shape and character before our very eyes. "You're still listening to what's past and what is to come," she tells Agamemnon, enticing him into the moment. "Can't you hear the muses? They're singing."

Cassandra takes his mask off and this powerful figure of myth brought to life is metamorphosized into an abruptly awakening man, someone making the discovery of what it is to be human. The two characters remove their garments and step naked toward each other, finally breaking through an impenetrable wall into another dimension. That unresolved body gesture of Agamemnon's that has defined him throughout the cycle, the stepping, reaching, expectation is finally fulfilled as Cassandra completes the movement, stepping into him and making him whole as the lights fall off their entwined bodies and lingers on the two masks, set down on a log on the beach.

It's an astonishing moment of theater, impossible without the entire experience that has preceded it. In that brief moment we understand everything we have seen before in a new light, and the payoff is complete. Although the play doesn't require its full ten hours -- the opening hour of exposition and the closing two hours of denouement could be trimmed considerably -- the production is never boring and the time at the theater is well spent. Nevertheless, a $250 ticket is well beyond prohibitive to the average theater goer.

The production is a rare and unprecedented theatrical treat, a generous gift from the Denver Center Theatre Company with virtually no hope of recouping their financial commitment -- primarily an investment in the six-month rehearsal process which is quadruple the standard time. The world-class design team provides breath-taking lights, sets and music without giving into the hubris of overproduction, and the acting is untouchable, staggering in its scope and intensity. If you have the stamina (it's easier than spending a day in front of the T.V.) and either the deep pockets or the ingenuity to find a way into the theater, you will not be disappointed.

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