In the Name of the Gods

The epic Tantalus secures its place in theatrical lore.

For much of the past year, pundits the world over have wondered whether John Barton's Tantalus would be a millennium-defining hit or flop. Much like the nature of Greek myths themselves, British theater legend Peter Hall's twelve-hour-plus production proves less absolute, drifting between scenes of wonderment and rhetoric, feeling and stoicism, reality and fantasy. This intentionally ambiguous nature is decidedly a positive, and the joint effort between the Denver Center Theatre Company and England's Royal Shakespeare Company leans more toward triumph than failure.

In the tradition of all-day ancient Greek drama festivals, the three-part Tantalus, named after a mythical, unseen character whose desires perpetually exceed his grasp, received its world premiere last Saturday in a marathon that started at 10 a.m. and finished at about 10:30 p.m. Punctuated by two meal breaks and six intermissions, the Trojan War saga unfolded on the Stage Theatre before a capacity crowd that greeted some of the 55-minute dramas with pre-curtain applause, a reaction that paid homage to Hall and company's mounting achievements by anticipating them.

The virtuoso performances, masterful directorial touches (the piece is co-directed by Hall and his son Edward) and astonishing design elements make for an event that brims with brilliance, wit and beauty. And while brambles of contradiction quickly overgrow every trail blazed in the name of truth -- one character's claims that the ship-launching Helen was abducted, for instance, get smothered under another's contention that she went willingly -- you don't need a scorecard to keep up with the sprawling story. Each myth takes on a life of its own, propped up by legends that have long been accepted as fact and ideas that are rooted in scholarship or speculation. What's more, Hall's choice to perform nearly the entire play in full, form-fitting masks actually has a liberating effect: Cursing the gods or questioning one's fate from behind a mask's neutral landscape provides a universal meaning not always conveyed by the naked face. Through it all, the eight leading actors, all of whom play multiple roles, achieve a performing style that makes each character seem at once mortal and supernatural.

Robert Petkoff as Achilles in Tantalus.
Robert Petkoff as Achilles in Tantalus.

Details

Through December 2
303-893-4100
Stage Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis

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English actor Greg Hicks leads the company with superb portrayals of the Trojan leader Priam and the Greek general Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus (who's also Helen's aggrieved mate). One of several company members who has the ability to command any stage in the English-speaking world, Hicks can descend into agony or rise magisterial with the slightest vocal inflection or shift in posture. He captivates the audience's attention from his first entrance and tightens his grip during moments of dry humor -- such as when Agamemnon assures the audience that his knock-me-down, knock-me-down-again marriage to Clytemnestra is (pause) "a happy one." Perched on stilts and balancing canes and done up in a headdress that seems inspired by the Dr. Who television series, Hicks's rendering of the lecherous Priam nearly steals the show. And when, as Agamemnon, he's faced with abandoning Helen's rescue or killing his own daughter to raise the winds that will make rescue possible, Hicks reveals a man marooned between pride and necessity. "I will not kill my child if all the winds of the world were stopped forever," he declares, knowing, as we do, that his defiance is futile.

American actress Mia Yoo is just as effective in her roles as Electra, a twitching grunge princess; Hermione, a debutante/Junior Leaguer who evidently stopped taking her mood-enhancing medication far too long ago; and, in what proves one of the show's most moving plays, as Iphigenia, the doomed daughter whose sacrifice is made all the more tragic by her willingness to calmly face death. "Look at me, my love," she says to her dumbstruck father at the moment of sacrifice. "I am your bride now."

Royal Shakespearean Ann Mitchell, whose riveting turn as the widowed Hecuba approaches -- then eclipses -- Aristotelian terror, complements Yoo in focus and intensity. Starting out every bit as iron-willed and blind as the most hubristic Shakespearean monarch, Mitchell encourages her embattled band of Trojan Women to stand firm in the face of danger, only to be overtaken by madness when her own child is murdered. Staggering about a makeshift canvas abode that brings to mind the Brechtian netherworld of "Mother Courage and Her Children," Mitchell succumbs to her own fate even as she exhorts her countrywomen to rise above theirs. "The gods are testing us to see if we can turn what has been done to us into something great and noble," she says moments before sinking into a vortex of grief.

Annalee Jefferies renders Clytemnestra as a woman plagued by basic insecurities as much as a predisposition to slice and dice famous warriors. She manifests these qualities when blithely commenting to a visitor, "Decent people live here doing the best they can" -- and then disembowels a sheep and tosses its remains into a murky fire hole. In addition, Jefferies is supremely grounded as Andromache, a Trojan princess whose father, husband and seven children were felled by Achilles's sword. Brassy, no-nonsense and hardly in a mood to supplicate, she brazenly scoffs at her country's lecher-king, "You could not find the place where a thousand nymphs were singing?"

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