When the production of Tantalus was announced, I approached it with a bit of trepidation. Was this going to be the usual "Woe is me, woe is me, let's kill the children" variety of Greek tragedy?
Fortunately, this is something brand new. Tantalus is the story of the Trojan War told in a 10-play cycle and written by John Burton. The plays are based on the ancient Greek texts by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. If you have seen Electra or The Trojan Women, some of it will be familiar. However, it is important to remember that Tantalus is not an updated version of these texts but are brand new plays based on the ancient texts. They tell the story from different points of view often with quite a lot of humor. Originally, the plays were expected to run over 16 hours long. Due to time and artistic constraints, the cycle was cut down to around 10 hours with a couple of plays removed.
Before I get to the play itself, let me give you some background information regarding design of the cycle and plot. There are a total of 10 plays, which are divided into 3 parts, THE OUTBREAK OF WAR, THE WAR, and THE HOMECOMINGS.
Part I THE OUTBREAK OF WAR, contains the first three plays of the cycle; the Prologue, Telephus, and Iphigena.
Prologue begins when a souvenir vendor begins to tell the story of the Trojan War to a group of college age girls lounging on a beach in Greece. As he explains the many causes of the war, many of the characters that appear throughout the cycle are introduced, Clytemsestra, Leda, Cassandra, Hecuba, Agamemnon, Odysseus & Achilles. He first tells them about Tantalus, who had a falling out with the Gods because he steals the nectar of the Gods and tells the God's secrets to the common people. For these deeds, he is severely punished. Many of the characters are his descendants and we see that they continue to make many of his mistakes. The storyteller continues on about The Judgement of Paris and the abduction of Hesione, how Paris stole Helen away from her husband and how before the war even begins, a fleet of ships headed to Troy mistakenly land on Mysia where a terrible massacre occurs.
In the next play, Telephus, which is the first of three plays telling the story from the Greek point of view, the king injured by Achilles during the visit to Mysia visits Agamemnon and begs Achilles to heal his wound. Unknown to everyone of Agamemnon's house, the wound is full of poison, which ends up infecting anyone who has touched the wounded king.
The last play in part one, Iphigenia, tells of a prophecy that states the winds will not allow the Greek forces to sail unless Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter, Iphigenia.
Part II of the cycle, THE WAR, consists of three plays, Neoptolemus, Priam, and Odysseus.
Neoptolemus is set on the last day of the 10-year war. For ten years, the Greeks and Trojan's have fought with neither able to get the upper hand. The Greeks plan to trick the Trojans into believing they have left Troy and leave a large wooden horse as a parting gift. In order to get the Trojans to accept the gift, Neoptolemus, Achilles' son and one who refuses to lie is asked to deceive the Trojans by dressing as a woman and convince the Trojans to drag the gift horse into the city walls.
The first of three plays from the Trojan perspective is called Priam. Priam's queen, Hecuba and rest of the Trojan Women try to persuade Priam to accept the horse despite his misgivings. Despite a warning from his daughter Cassandra, he agrees and the horse is brought into the city.
Odysseus takes place the day after the battle. All the Trojan men have been killed and the women have been enslaved. Hecuba tries to trick Odysseus who is seeking Troy's remaining gold.
THE HOMECOMINGS is part III of the Tantalus cycle and consists of Cassandra, Hermione, and Helen/Epilogue.
In Cassandra we learn that Hecuba sent her youngest son to safety in Thrace. However, when she finds out that the King of Thrace has killed him, she avenges the death by stabbing out the king's eyes. Cassandra, who is now Agamemnon's slave/concubine, prophesies that his wife, Clytemnestra will murder both she and Agamemnon upon their return to Greece. Another 7 years after the end of the war, the Greeks find that even the victors have to face the fact that the war has destroyed their lives.
Hermione, Neoptolemus' wife and the name of the ninth play, is required to marry Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, after Neoptolemus dies.
The final play, Helen, is set at Helen's trial at Delphi. Helen, who it is thought to have willingly left her husband Menelaus with Paris to Troy and thus believed by most to be the cause of the war, is on trial with a war crime. Delphi is destroyed when the jury refused to accept the God's judgment. The brief Epilogue returns to the opening scene, where the storyteller tells the young women that the story is destroyed because they have made the same mistake as Tantalus.
An epic story of this magnitude requires an international group of creators in order to carry it out. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Denver Theatre Company have amassed a group that includes Edward and Peter Hall (son & father) from Britain, Dionysis Fotopoulos from Greece, Sumio Yoshii from Japan, Mick Sands from Ireland, and Donald McKayle from New York. The have spent over 6 months preparing and rehearsing for this huge challenge. Edward and Peter Hall had the daunting task of directing the 24 actors in 10 plays. I really appreciated the way the entire production was organized. Each play ran 50-60 minutes with a 15-minute intermission between each show and a 90-dinner break between the 3rd and 4th play. This gave one time to absorb each play before diving into the next section. At least for me, it makes the long afternoon and evening pass much quicker. I had a similar experience last time I was in London seeing Julius Caesar at the Globe. Each act, there were 5, lasted 25 to 40 minutes and there was a brief 5-minute interval between each act. For some reason, these little pauses give one a moment to reflect and prepare for the next bit of action. The dinner break was nice too as I was able to meet several people from London, New York and a few from Colorado itself and to discuss what we all had seen.
Each play has a different focus, which must have been difficult and yet very challenging for the directors to work on. For the most part, each play is well paced and moves quickly. The only exception I can think of was in Priam where it dragged a bit. Hecuba and the Trojan women just seemed to repeat their dialogue before the action finally continued.
The set and costume design are by Dionysis Fotopoulos from Greece. The stage of the Stage Theatre is covered in about a foot of sand. Though the basic set can describe any beach in Greece and Turkey, various pieces change the local for each play, a house for Agamemnon, burned wood scattered to present the defeated Troy, and a tent for an army camp. It is simple as the story that is being told is supposed to be the focus and yet, the set really instills the mood of each play. The costumes are look traditional but have a contemporary feel to them. Each actor also uses a mask to help them portray their character. As a rule, I'm not a big fan of masks but they are so well integrated into the design, so well formed to each actor's face that I often forgot they were wearing the masks. You could even see his or her mouths move so it took me a while before I realized that everyone had a mask. There were only a couple of masks that bothered me and it was due more to the fact that they didn't fit well. One mask on one of the woman in particular continued to flop around whenever she spoke which thankfully, wasn't very often. Since most of the actors played several roles, the masks also helped to differentiate each character as well.
Sumio Yoshii, one of Japan's greatest lighting designers was brought in for this project. Besides the usual and unusual challenges of this piece, Mr. Yoshii doesn't speak English so the play had to first be translated into Japanese for him to understand the material. He has not only created a lighting design, which encompasses the usual natural light patterns, but has given the plays an aura that creates a mystical feeling for the mythology.
Tony Award winner Donald McKayle (Raisin) has worked with many of the great Broadway greats as well as performers from the world of ballet, modern dance, theatre, and television. While there are no set dance productions in Tantalus, Mr. McKayle was able to use weave in a lot of choreographed moves into the work. This helped to move scenes along, extend several various scenes, or to emphases a particular moment to great effect.
As I read the program and discovered that the composer Mick Sands was from Ireland, I prayed it wouldn't be a rehash of Riverdance. The music turned out to be quite lovely and interesting in that it seems to be a blend of Celtic and Mediterranean. This assists the other designers in helping to create the time and place of the plays. The music also seemed to be tailored made for to fit with the characters for each play.
The company consists of 28 eight actors. Four are from London and the rest are US based. The main eight actors portray the 30 main characters. My particular favorites were Greg Hicks as Agamemnon, Priam, and Menelaus, Annalee Jefferies as Clytemnestra, Andromache, Ilione, and Helen, and Ann Mitchell as Hecuba, the Nurse, and Aethra. Each of these three actors really differentiated each role they played. Greg Hicks was the lucky devil that seemed to have the funniest lines. Not funny really but funny in their delivery. He has done a great deal of work in London and his timing was exceptional. Annalee Jefferies was especially good as the devious Clytemnestra and Trojan princess Andromache who loses her husband Hector and becomes humble yet strong slave to Neoptolemus. Ann Mitchell's Hecuba who refuses to accept her fate was formidable and terrifying before and after the war. You wouldn't want to mess with her. The other five actors were also very good playing a great variety of characters. 12 women played the young girls on the beach. They soon merge into the chorus and in time become the Trojan Women. The remaining members of the company play various roles in the ensemble. I didn't notice anyone out of place or making any obvious mistakes.
All in all, I found this to be a great production of a difficult and challenging piece. All of the hard work has successfully produced a new way of looking at a genre of theatre than can at times be rather tedious and boring. The theatre was only 75% full but I understand that it does take an investment of time, which I hope a lot of people end up doing. The play runs until December 2nd at the Denver Theatre Company's Stage Theatre in the Helen Bonsfil Theatre Complex in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. After it ends in Denver, the show will travel to England and play several cities before taking up residence at the Barbican Theatre in London. If you have the time, money, and interest, I do encourage everyone to see this great show.
Tantalus plays Wednesdays/ Thursdays and Saturdays/Sundays. On Wednesdays, Part I begins at 2pm. Dinner in the Donald R. Seawell Grand Ballroom follows, with Part II following dinner and ending at about 10:30pm. Part III is seen on Thursdays from 7 to 10:30pm. The Saturday/Sunday program follow a similar pattern, with Saturday curtains at 2pm, followed by dinner and concluding at 10:30pm and Sundays beginning at 2 and ending at 5:30pm. On three occasions-November 18, 25 and December 2-the entire cycle will be performed in a single day and include a catered lunch and dinner in the Donald R. Seawell Grand Ballroom. For more information, please visit their website at Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
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