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In the Name of the Gods

Robert Petkoff as Achilles in Tantalus.

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.

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?"

 

Englishman David Ryall delights as the Poet, a surrogate author of sorts (and a character who remains unmasked throughout) who begins the play by selling statues of Zeus and Aphrodite to a chorus of swimsuit-clad American women. With his twinkling eyes and self-deprecating humor, Ryall transports the chorus and audience to magical and mysterious locales. From time to time he impersonates characters such as the W.C. Fields-like Tyndareus, and, clad in a flap-eared hat and puffy-cheeked mask that appear to have been borrowed from Rocky and Bullwinkle, as Peleus, father of Achilles. As Odysseus, fellow Brit Alan Dobie is the epitome of unfeeling compromise, managing to shift alliances and adjust course without becoming overwhelmed by the despair and remorse that others ascribe to him. Through his portrait, we learn that the pitfalls of war by committee are no better or worse than the evils of stand-alone tyranny. Dobie's fiery confrontation with Mitchell's Hecuba and his recurring appearance as the prophet Calchas lend substance and subtlety to the saga without cloying it with sentiment.

New Yorker Alyssa Bresnahan sometimes appears to float an inch or two above the stage's sandy surface as the sea nymph Thetis, so seductive are her ephemeral appearances. In the space of a few short seconds, though, Bresnahan turns her godlike creature into a blithering brat who disavows any responsibility for having saddled her earthly son with a feral upbringing. She's similarly irrepressible as the prophetess Cassandra, urging her fellow women of Troy to revolt one minute and stand firm the next. "Had we not suffered, who would remember us?" is her ultimate refrain. As the oft-maligned Achilles (he's not much of a hero in this play), Robert Petkoff gets all of the warrior's coarseness and most of his blood lust. As Achilles's son, Neoptolemus, he is even more ruthless and cunning -- qualities that are underscored when he appears on stage bathed head to toe in his victims' blood.

Charged with the difficult task of inhabiting the stage for nearly the entire show, the chorus performs with admirable aplomb, especially during a horrific scene in which the Trojan Women are stripped naked and branded as slaves -- an episode that awakens memories of the atrocities in Bosnia and Chechnya. Later, the actresses represent several washerwomen during a fantastical, almost surreal vision of warfare that evokes the Holocaust. Selected as much for their collaborative synergies as for their individual talents, Francesca Carlin, Joy Jones, Tess Lina, Jeanne Paulsen, Christina Pawl, Nicole Poole, Juliet Smith, Mia Tagano, Vickie Tanner and Robin Terry consistently rise to the occasion --as do Elijah Alexander, Joshua Coomer, Pierre-Marc Diennet, Morgan Hallett, Steve Hughes, Tif Luckenbill, David McCann, Randy Moore and Matt Pepper, who together form the ensemble of soldiers and attendants. American dance master Donald McKayle's influence is evident only if you look for it; an extraordinary moment of unmasking occurs well into the story, and the two actors who carry it to its artful extremes were likely guided by McKayle's astute sensibilities.

The stories are enacted to both live and recorded music (composed and performed by Irishman Mick Sands, assisted by on-stage musician Yukio Tsuji) and on a large, sandy playing area littered with seaside flotsam. The actors are clothed in a mixture of modern and classic garb -- baseball-style shin guards, Vulcan-like helmets and platform shoes mix with flowing gowns, breastplates and loincloths. The emblematic stage design, which varies for each of the nine plays, serves as a constant reminder of each myth's size and scale: A giant skewered stag, inverted on a giant spear and arching toward the heavens at, it seems, the precise moment of death, dominates center stage during the tale of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. (Greek theater legend Dionysis Fotopoulos designed the magnificent sets and costumes.) Throughout, iridescent shafts of color blanket and pattern the stage even as they isolate this or that performer in mystical "god light." (Japanese designer Sumio Yoshii fashioned the stunning lighting.)

To be sure, cathartic feeling is as scarce in Hall's severely altered version of Tantalus as spectacle and shtick are prevalent, leading one to wonder whether the director's vision has clouded, rather than crystallized, the writer's. Hall's shaving away of as much as a third of the text during rehearsals appears to have been a wise move, but given that each play is more or less self-contained, eliminating a couple more hours' worth of background information wouldn't have hurt. At times the saga lurches where it should pick up speed, such as in the first two plays of both the beginning and middle segments. And even though the third and final segment begins with the red-hot tale of Hecuba, the play runs out of gas during the anti-climactic trial of Helen. The result is more of an intellectual exercise and feast for the senses -- albeit an expertly staged one -- than a cleansing emotional experience.

 

Questions of auteurship and tone aside, however, Tantalus does raise questions about the divine forces that humans regard as both infallible and blameworthy, and of the double-headed nature of justice in a world that both demands and rejects absolute answers. Though labored and extended here and there, Hall's production speaks unerringly of the dangers that arise when we aspire to be godlike before understanding our own mortality.


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