A Tantalizing Thought

Donald Seawell doesn't think the ambitious Tantalus is out of Denver's reach.

He's produced some 65 Broadway shows, served as a boardmember and the American producer for Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and single-handedly changed Colorado's cultural landscape by building the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Beginning this weekend, however, Donald R. Seawell, in conjunction with the RSC, will unveil what he regards as his -- and Western civilization's -- most ambitious theatrical undertaking yet: Tantalus, a ten-part, ten-and-a-half-hour cycle of plays about the Trojan War. Although Seawell's decision to commit $6 million of the DCPA's money to stage the piece has earned him worldwide admiration, some local arts practitioners claim he is more interested in making a name for himself than serving the community that supports his lofty enterprises.

Named after a mythical character whose desires always exceed his grasp, the epic was penned by RSC artistic associate John Barton and directed by RSC founder Peter Hall. It has been in the works since 1980, when Barton devised The Greeks, a ten-hour cut-and-paste adaptation of ancient Greek plays (one of which, Achilles, Barton wrote himself). The relative success of that project, combined with research that turned up several documented versions of each popularly accepted myth, convinced Barton that he ought to write his own account of Greece's protracted feud with Troy. Nearly twenty years later, he arrived on Hall's doorstep with two large garbage bags that held the first draft of his plays. After taking a week off to read them, Hall decided that Barton had created "a bit of a masterpiece" and set about finding a way to get the work produced.

Try as they might, however, neither Hall nor Barton -- who gained worldwide attention in 1963 when they teamed up at the RSC to mount The Wars of the Roses, an adaptation of Shakespeare's history plays hailed by critics as the century's greatest theatrical achievement -- were able to secure adequate financing for Tantalus. So they turned to their old friend Seawell, who, as soon as he read the script, committed the DCPA to become one of the project's handful of sponsors.

Donald Seawell believes he has the right to fail.
Anthony Camera
Donald Seawell believes he has the right to fail.

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One by one, however, Seawell's partners abandoned the project -- not for any lack of enthusiasm, he quickly points out, but for lack of resources. The RSC, which commissioned Barton to write the play years before the British government egregiously slashed crucial state subsidies for the arts, found it couldn't commit the necessary capital. Nor could Yale University or the Greek government, both of which had professed serious interest in backing the piece.

Through it all, Seawell, who turned 88 last month, held fast to his belief in both the project and the men behind it. That's mostly because he's known the prolific Hall, who directed the first English-language version of Samuel Beckett's landmark Waiting for Godot, since 1955. And he's been closely associated with Barton ever since he produced the Englishman's play, The Hollow Crown, on Broadway in 1961 (and at the Central City Opera House in 1973).

Despite the risks to his and the DCPA's reputations -- if it fails, the project will forever be known locally as Seawell's Folly; if it succeeds, the unwieldy import might be dismissed as artsy excess -- Seawell put up the funds necessary to produce Tantalus. "This is the first time that a theater project of this size has come along in 2,500 years, and it may not come along for another 2,500 years," he observes. "Either we did it, or this wonderful work of theater would disappear."

Predictably enough, Seawell's decision raised the ire of locals who've long regarded the former New York lawyer as little more than an empire builder. Some of that resentment can be traced back to the 1970s, when Seawell, who headed the well-endowed Bonfils Foundation and served as publisher of the Bonfils family-owned Denver Post, dipped into the foundation's coffers to finance construction of the DCPA, which opened in 1979. A year later, Seawell replenished the foundation's coffers by selling the struggling Post to out-of-town interests. More recently, he has come under fire for financing pie-in-the-sky endeavors that seem more tailored to commercial interests than those of the not-for-profit regional theater (although one such work, Eliot Ness...in Cleveland, which received lukewarm reviews when it premiered at the DCPA a few seasons back, will be re-staged later this season by the not-for-profit Cleveland Play House).

In his defense, Seawell says that the DCPA's lone, unsparing support of Tantalus is in keeping with his longstanding commitment to "attract worldwide attention" to Denver's cultural scene. "We've assembled the finest we could in terms of the artistic personnel," he says.

Besides Hall and Barton, Seawell hired Greek theater legend Dionysis Fotopoulus to design the costumes and sets and signed Japanese designer Sumio Yoshii, "who everyone thinks is the best in the world," to fashion the lighting design. The production also boasts the original musical compositions of Irishman Mick Sands, the choreography of American dance legend Donald McKayle and the prodigious acting talents of an Anglo-American cast, featuring four British and four American performers in the leading roles and fourteen additional American actors in minor roles. (The acting company has been putting in ten-hour days since rehearsals began in March, and the DCPA's crack technical department is crafting all of the design elements.)

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