A famous rule of play crafting warns theatre practitioners to inform the audience within the first ten minutes what to expect of the show they're about to see. Will the play be light or serious? What unique storytelling methods, if any, will be employed? While generally a rule for playwrights, it's vital for directors, too, to establish a style early on, and maintain it until the very last scene.
This initial statement is corrosively muddled in the Imua! Theatre Company's production of The Greeks, which is having its New York premiere at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater through August 5. The first of the two three-hour evenings constituting the work, which was adapted by John Barton and Kenneth Cavander and is directed here by Kaipo Schwab, begins with a fizzy, funny, and chatty recounting of the creation of the world according to Greek myth by six crisp-speaking, and smartly attired women. If this suggests an evening likely to beguile, enchant, and reinvent these familiar stories, it's a promise never fully delivered upon.
But even if The Greeks tends to collapse under its own weight, all is not entirely lost. As with the mortals at the center of the Trojan War epic, The Greeks is eventually redeemed. No, not completely - Schwab and his company of actors don't have the polish or raw experience needed to make such an ambitious undertaking an unqualified success. But by the time the second evening has run its course, the company has tapped into at least a little of the warming, magical feeling that theatre alone is capable of generating.
To arrive at that point as an audience member, one must endure an often uncomfortable and repetitive pageant of pomp, circumstance, prophecy, and death, all intertwined in the way Greek tragedians like Euripides and Aeschylus did better than almost anyone else in history. Yet, while plays like Iphigenia in Aulis, The Trojan Women, Agamemnon, and Electra are capable of conjuring great dramatic power, when they're performed as they are here, in rapid succession and in sometimes egregiously cut-down versions, the impact of any given play is lessened, so that the effect of all ten plays together may be greater.
It's a strong idea in theory - seeing, in short order, the 17-year story of the sacrifices made by the Greek general Agamemnon to win the war against Troy, and then seeing how those choices impact the lives of his children and those around them, is a thrilling prospect. But it needs to be handled with more detail and delicacy than it is here; the passage of time and the rippling effects of destiny, so vital in many Greek works, are hardly in evidence. Many years that pass between plays take little toll on characters' appearances or attitudes, and gruesome deaths seem to occur frequently enough to be unintentionally funny.
The audience doesn't get a chance for a real release until the second play of the second evening, Euripides's Helen, which reduces the grim revelation of Helen of Troy's whereabouts during the war to what the program describes as "a comical roundelay." The actors and the audience both seem to enjoy themselves more, and subsequent plays are much easier to digest. The first evening of five plays, consisting of almost unrelenting pain, screaming, and tragedy, become too heavy far too quickly.
Exceptional actors could compensate for these difficulties, bringing depth to the comedy and airiness to the tragedy, but most of the performances in The Greeks are at best obligatory. There are some notable exceptions: Jennifer Robinson is excellent as the strong-willed Iphigenia, who plays vital roles at the beginning and end of the Trojan War saga; Daniella Chiminelli brings a clever touch of Goth chic to her tortured Electra; and Robyn LeVine mines some juicy nuggets of comedy from her all-too-brief appearances as Hermione, the daughter of Helen and her husband Menelaus.
The other performers in the cast of over three dozen do a fair amount of posing, intoning, and bellowing, which seldom proves enough to bring most of the characters or the story to life. (The script cannily avoids presupposing knowledge of Greek drama, but the more you know going in, the better.) Attempts by Schwab and costume designer Deanna Berg to suggest the modern day in the show's visual style and staging don't distract, but seldom enhance. (The necessarily utilitarian vacant-lot-inspired set is by Antje Ellermann, the lighting by Shawn K. Kaufman.)
It's not until the last piece, Iphigenia in Tauris, that Schwab, his company, and the cycle of plays truly prove themselves. Though the appearance of Athene, the goddess of wisdom, is little more than a thinly veiled deus ex machina, it's a welcome and fairly satisfying way to tie up the story. She delivers her message of peace and hope, wishing that words could solve problems that were solved during the Trojan War almost exclusively by bloodshed.
In our current climate that's something worth remembering. If much of the perspective in the final scenes is currently missing from the five and a half hours leading up to Athene's appearance, Schwab and his actors may still find at least some of it during the course of the show's run. But until that happens, expect the often leaden The Greeks to feel about as long as the Trojan War itself.
Imua! Theatre Company