A HAPPENING OF THE HIGHEST THEATRICAL ORDER
The Flea Theatre’s young resident acting ensemble, The Bats, is re-mounting their production of These Seven Sicknesses. If you’re looking for an engaging summer theatrical event in New York City (and have already seen Sleep No More), These Seven Sicknesses might just be your ticket.
Under Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s excellent direction, The Bats serve up playwright Sean Graney’s post-modern adaptation of the seven extant plays of Sophocles, ones which include some of the world’s greatest dysfunctional families. The plays themselves don’t seamlessly work together as a narrative set, but Graney solves that problem by connecting them with a chorus of sassy, compassionate Nurses. Graney’s premise is that each of Sophocles’ tragedies is essentially about a sickness that needs healing. Having a nursing staff and an orderly on hand to care for the wounded is not only a hip downtown choice, but also an organic solution to this very ambitious piece of theatre. The seven plays are performed at one 4 ½ hour stretch, which also includes a healthy dinner and dessert served up by The Bats during two intermissions. While Graney tends to simplify the complexities of these Greek tragedies, the upside of dumbing them down is that the lengthy evening moves along briskly and director Iskandar helms a production that never feels long. The basic themes of Sophocles’ plays are all in place: honor, suffering, virtue, shame, and justice. Because the show is ultimately a showcase for The Bats, the production is less concerned with fathoming the depths of tragedy than balancing a show where every actor gets a moment to shine.
The production is filled with enough spectacle to make Aristotle proud. From the first section, when Oedipus and Jocasta’s bloody acts take place center stage, we know we are in for an evening of fearlessly committed choices and 21st century reinvention. Onstage amputations, castrations, and immolations become commonplace in this production. With the traditional Chorus cut from Graney’s script, part of the fun is in how The Bats cleverly enact the heinous crimes that originally happened offstage and were reported by a Chorus.
Stylistically, each act shifts slightly in tone from play to play. The production has deep reverence for the Oedipus section, but rides a farcical edge in the Herakles story, moving to a highly stylized fantasy fight sequence in the Ajax story, and finally settling down for a more naturalistic Antigone towards the end. The lack of a cohesive, consistent style, however, was never a distraction and supports the post-modern lens of eclecticism through which Graney, Ishkandar and The Bats want us to re-consider these myths.
One of the challenges with These Seven Sicknesses is working with a company of mostly young actors. While the company exudes a joyful energy for performing and shows terrific acting instincts, the acting craft and technique it takes to pull off Sophocles is a challenge even for mid-career actors at the peak of their talents. I was often aware that the actors were “performing” Greek tragedies instead of embodying the legends and filling the stage with rich inner lives. Company vocals often feel strained and overly articulated consonants occasionally fall out of actors’ mouths at the expense of natural human speech. These Seven Sicknesses is not for those who want traditional Greek tragedy performed with classical élan.
What the youthful acting company lacks in time-honed craft, they certainly make up for in exuberance. In the cast of 34, there a number of fine stand-outs. Stephen Stout’s Creon is one of the few characters who gets a chance to develop a character arc, which he does beautifully, gradually grounding Creon’s petulance as he ages and internalizing the compromises he has made to survive politically. Jeff Ronan’s natural sympathetic qualities mix with his intelligence to make for an earnest, youthful Oedipus, sincerely struggling with his discoveries and responsibilities.
Kate Michaud is a funny and fierce Dejanire in the lesser known In Trachis. Liz Tancredi’s Iole is a formidable foe for Michaud as she exudes very sexy comic timing. Tommy Crawford pops into several different acts as the Carrier, delivering messages with the matter-of-fact charm of a post-modern Radar O’Reilly. Grant Harrison fully commits to the character of Ajax, transitioning gracefully from raging delusions to vulnerable remorse. Betsy Lippitt and Olivia Stoker have excellent comic chemistry as an angry-punk Electra and girly-girl Chrysothemis, respectively. Katherine Folk-Sullivan is a poignant Antigone as she builds a make-shift casket in which to give her fallen brother a proper burial at the expense of her own life. Holding the whole evening together is Will Turner as The Orderly who, with the six wonderful Nurses, perform David Dabbon’s fine orchestrations guiding the tone as the production shifts from play to play.
The creative design team has done a splendid job creating a simple performance space with a design that holds all facets of the production. Julia Noulin-Merat’s long, narrow playing area allows for the evening to flow while never feeling like a bowling alley. Set pieces come and go without effort. The audience is separated from the actors on two sides implying a jury box. Collaborating with Andrew Hungerford and Carl Weimann’s original lighting designs, the team has created a world that defines the boundaries of the seven separate stories while letting them all occur easily in the same space. Michael Weiser’s challenge as post-modern fight choreographer was to create both highly stylized and truthful fights, a task he meets head on. The intimate violence never feels silly, and, in the case of the Ajax section, it transcends expectations and aspires to great beauty.
The Bats themselves refer to These Seven Sicknesses as a “party.” It certainly is an event, a happening of the highest theatrical order. The grace note of breaking bread and being served by the acting company only enhances and humanizes the experience. However, the highlight of the evening is the final song when all thirty-four actors appear, and the stage fills with the love for theatre and hope for humanity, which is the heart beating at the center of These Seven Sicknesses.
photos by Laura June Kirsch
These Seven Sicknesses
The Bats at The Flea Theater in New York City
scheduled to end on July 1, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.theflea.org/