Thursday, April 20, 2000

Greek's the thing in theater

Troupes turn to the classics to address big issues onstage

BY Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Everything ancient is new again, at least onstage at the turn of the 21st century. Consider:

        Funny, thoughtful, violent Big Love emerged as the uncontested critical champion at this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville. It was Charles Mee's very contemporary update of Aeschylus' The Suppliant Women, about a bevy of brides given in marriage against their will. (Theme song: “You Don't Own Me.”) They opt to murder their unwanted husbands on their wedding nights.

        One of the hottest tickets at the World Stage, Toronto's international theater festival, is another modern-dress Aeschylus, a two-part Oresteia adapted by late British poet laureate Ted Hughes Last summer's off-Broadway hot ticket Bash (which starred Calista Flockhart) was a trio of monologues inspired by tragedies of Euripides. It's coming to Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati next season.

        In October, Denver Center Theatre Company will debut a $6 million-plus, 15-hour, 10-play cycle Tantalus.Directed by Sir Peter Hall, it's about the Trojan Wars.

        This weekend Cincinnati Shakespeare wraps up an adaptation of Sophocles' three-play Oedipus epic, about a cursed royal family. It has been condensed into a single evening and titled The Oedipus Trilogy.

        Stage First Cincinnati is preparing to open Lysistrata on April 27 for a two-weekend run. The only comedy in the bunch, by satirist Aristophanes, it's about women who declare a sex strike until their men stop making war.

        "All still true'

        What's going on here? Why is theater thinking Greek?

        Oedipus Trilogy director Michael Burnham has an answer. “It's all still true.”

        Most of these productions, he points out, “are being done by (Baby) Boomers who are aging. All our great mythologies are falling apart — nation states, like Russia. The presidency. They're not what they used to be. Our impulse, I think, is to go looking for answers.

        “I think the only place you can address big issues in pop culture are Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) and Xena (Warrior Princess). The rest of our culture is tied down to a reality where everything is fine in the end. Only it isn't really.

        “The Greeks do the same thing. They don't deny we're going to die. They teach you to live with not being able to win when you can't win.”

        Looking for answers

        Charles Mee wrote Big Love to celebrate the millennium with his 21st century take on what many believe is the first Greek drama.

        Look for a continued life for the show, which includes explosive movement and every wedding song you can think of, from Mozart to Wagner to Mendelssohn, with some Cole Porter thrown in for good measure. (Mr. Mee's theory is that when words can't take you any further, an actor has to burst into physical action or song.)

        Big Love's director Les Waters pondered the current proliferation of Greeks. “I don't know why it's entered the zeitgeist. Except they're so damned big, and ask all the basic questions we have to keep asking. "What is our responsibility as human beings? What is justice? Is retribution ever justified?”'

        Playhouse in the Park producing artistic director Ed Stern sighs, “I'm embarrassed that I don't know the last time,” (the theater produced a Greek play) but it's not for lack of loving them.

        “I taught script analysis for nine years,” Mr. Stern says, “and I always taught Oedipus Rex. It's a perfect play.

        “Plays with a lot of frou-frou can deliver on window dressing and audiences can mistake that for substance and leave happy. But a fundamental story, two or three actors with a chorus, brilliantly executed can be all you really need to create a primal force.

        “The other things the Greeks created was such a sense of community, of inter-connectedness between characters, play and audience. There's nothing like it.”

        Mr. Stern's dream Oedipus Rex, he says, would be performed in a tiny space by candlelight. It's something, he sighs again, that would be “impossible” to make fit a Playhouse season slot.

        "Make love, not war'

        Stage First artistic director Nicholas Korn is delighted to be providing comic relief. Lysistrata, he says, “is the original "make love, not war' comedy.”

        He also warns audiences who expect the “classics” to be polite and well-behaved to think again.

        “Aristophanes was rude and risque. Pushing the envelope isn't a modern issue.” Stage First's Lysistrata will be true to the satiric spirit of the ancients, even featuring phallic puppets.

        Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher isn't adapting any ancient Greeks. His current project is a musical fairy tale, Everything's Ducky, that comes to Playhouse in the Park in fall. He does have an opinion or two on the subject, though.

        “It could be a peculiar positioning of the planets and stars,” he says, “but I don't think so. And for those of us who don't believe in fate, I suppose if somebody put up a graph of the century's drama and ran a mathematical probability, it could be time for the Greeks to come back into fashion.

        “The reason I tend to believe, though, is that as we stand back and look at our world, we see long-held hatreds, deep-seated animosities. In America, we understand that primarily through issues of race and sex.

        “With other societies, it's an issue of nationality. Solutions include ethnic cleansing.

        “The Elizabethans, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov don't speak to these issues. They demand stories that make sense of long-held hatred and passions, and the Greeks did it best and first. And they had really good plots, 90-minute steamrollers.”


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