‘Tantalus’ Myth Unfolds in Epic Style
Ideally, the story would end with a bracing, improbable triumph, the likes of which the American regional theater has never seen. Or, depending on the mood of the gods, a belly-flop of unparalleled hubris, the project’s $10-million-and-counting price tag lying there poolside.
On Saturday morning, theatergoers--including more critics than anyone wants to see in any one place at any given time--filed into the Denver Center for the Performing Arts for the 10 a.m. opening of playwright John Barton’s 10-play monster blowout smack-down known as “Tantalus.” Or rather, “Peter Hall’s production of Tantalus,” as the Denver Theater Center program front piece clearly states.
Twelve hours, 20 minutes, six intermissions, two meal breaks and a Trojan war later--the ending of this story, as well as the stories behind the making of this huge enterprise, became clear. “Tantalus” is what the Olympian deities used to call “a ‘tweener.” Even with its cheap-laugh streak, in the main it is a cautious, steady, essentially conservative enterprise. It is occasionally inspired but, in the main, careful.
There are more preferable adjectives when it comes to any treatment of such durable, bloody, provocative myths.
Billed as an adaptation of Barton’s text, the “Tantalus” that Hall has staged in Denver begins with a modern-day prologue. We are on a beach dotted with sunbathing women. A trinket-seller and storyteller (David Ryall) appears and begins to tell of the Trojan war. He has for his listeners what he calls “the Epic Cycle of the Lost Bits,” revealing different sides of some familiar mythological figures. Among the key players are the warrior Agamemnon (Greg Hicks), his wife, Clytemnestra (Annalee Jefferies), the hothead Achilles (Robert Petkoff), raised by bears, and in one of this production’s few onstage nods to the supernatural, the sea nymph Thetis (Alyssa Bresnahan).
Hall’s staging comes in thirds, adding up to a rueful whole. The first third details how the Western war fleet of 1,000 ships, aiming for Troy and the abducted Helen, landed at Mysia instead. A curse is laid on Agamemnon and his house. Agamemnon’s eldest daughter, Iphigenia (Mia Yoo), sacrifices herself, and with her body, an incestuous father-daughter relationship turns to smoke.
The 10-year Trojan war here is but a blip; Barton has his own literary alleyway to pursue. The second third posits a theory about what exactly went on with the wooden horse gambit. Bratty, increasingly sociopathic Neoptolemus (Petkoff) disguises himself as a woman and seduces the Trojan king Priam (Hicks). The horse is led into the walled city, and Troy’s fate is sealed. The Trojan women, who like so many others in “Tantalus” have gotten their own play or opera many times over the centuries, are stripped, branded and enslaved. Menelaus (Hicks, again, the ensemble standout) is reunited with Helen (Jefferies), but it’s an uneasy alliance.
Part three, “The Homecomings,” is dominated by the enslaved Queen Hecuba (Ann Mitchell), who picks up the blood feud begun so long ago with the House of Tantalus. The title character is never seen, but we hear of his fate--the fate of any mortal who yearns to become godlike before mastering the art of being human. The god Zeus punished the overreaching Tantalus by placing him underneath an enormous boulder, tied to the heavens. The rock hangs heavy over this production.
Take away all the intermissions and meal breaks, and “Tantalus” adds up to fewer than eight hours of show. Hall and a cast of 27 have been rehearsing it for six months. Early on, playwright Barton and Hall came to grief over the text, and their collaboration foundered. Hall and his co-director, Edward Hall (Peter’s son), weren’t simply trimming the running time by one-third, from the originally announced 15 hours to 10: They adapted the text and added their own connective tissue, with the help of dramaturge Colin Teevan. Actors dropped out; new actors came on board or were given additional assignments.
In shape, rhythm and length, “Tantalus” has ended up very much in the spirit of “The Greeks,” a 10-play cycle created in the 1970s by co-authors Barton and Kenneth Cavander for the Royal Shakespeare Company. (The Royal Shakespeare is an associate producer of “Tantalus,” which is scheduled to play six cities in Great Britain along with London beginning next year.) The writing of “Tantalus” strives for snap and concision; the banter often takes on a clipped, jabbing, contemporary-sounding rhythm.
Hall delivers it, but he hasn’t exactly found a variety of rhythms for the 10 plays. Using scenic and costume designer Dionysis Fotopoulos’ circular sand pit of a stage, littered with war remains and wreckage, the two Halls present a big chunk of front-and-center, stand-and-deliver Greek mythology.
It’s solid enough but more than a little plodding. And Hall’s decision to play “Tantalus” almost entirely in masks was a major misjudgment. In his collected lectures “Exposed by the Mask,” the director argues that “the Greek mask was enigmatic, uncertain, representing the human condition.” An hour or two into “Tantalus,” you wish the actors at least had mouths and jaws to call their own. No matter how determined the actors get with their final consonants, a line referring to “a thousand ships as backup” comes out sounding like “a shoushand shidds ash beggup.” Perhaps Hall’s 1981 “Oresteia,” its all-male cast similarly masked, overcame the aesthetic limitations inherent in such a choice, at least as the masks have been designed here.
There’s a fair bit of spectacle, to be sure. Amid all the revenge ploys and suffering, the Halls spice things up with some nudity. (When Hicks’ Agamemnon and Bresnahan’s Cassandra embrace naked by a fire, you think: Finally, after all the rape and pillage, a little consensual sex! So what if they die for it later!) The production’s most effective splash comes with the Trojan horse, depicted by the image of two 20-foot-high wooden wheels. As the wheels groan and creak upstage, downstage a seduction and murder--Neoptolemus’ entrapment of Priam--is underway. In this moment, “Tantalus” gives us the full weight of the myth at hand, seen from a macro and a micro viewpoint. Such moments are too rare.
Hicks’ golden tones and richly ironic turns are much appreciated as Agamemnon, Menelaus and old king Priam, whose stilt-walking costume, resembling Ichabod Crane guest starring on “Star Trek,” is the best of show. Bresnahan, Alan Dobie (as warrior Odysseus and a camp-travesty Calchas) and Mitchell’s anguished, blood-simple Hecuba fare well, even with the walkie-talkie vocal quality enforced by the masks.
Composer Mick Sands’ work is disappointingly routine, the ambient sounds created live primarily by himself and percussionist Yukio Tsuji gliding in and out of various encounters without much dramatic edge. The Halls add in some film bits as well, flames and soldiers and the like.
By the end, you applaud everyone’s stamina and best efforts. You’re glad to have had the opportunity to see anything produced on this scale. And, bittersweetly, you wish for a more urgent and tantalizing sum total.
* “Tantalus,” Denver Center Theatre Company, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Speer and Arapahoe streets, Denver. One-day marathon: Nov. 18, Nov. 25 and Dec. 2, 10 a.m. Day 1: Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m.; Nov. 1, 4, 8, 11, 15, 21 and 29, 2 p.m. Day 2: Thursday, 7 p.m.; Oct. 29, 2 p.m.; Nov. 2, 7 p.m.; Nov. 5, 2 p.m.; Nov. 9, 7 p.m.; Nov. 12, 2 p.m.; Nov. 16, 22 and 30, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 2. $240-$280; students and seniors, $160-$230. (800) 641-1222. Running time: excluding meal breaks, approximately 10 hours.
Alyssa Bresnahan: Thetis, Cassandra, Pythoness
Alan Dobie: Odysseus, Calchas
Greg Hicks: Agamemnon, Priam, Menelaus
Annalee Jefferies: Clytemnestra, Andromache, Ilione, Helen
Ann Mitchell: Hecuba, Nurse, Aethra
Robert Petkoff: Achilles, Aegisthus, Neoptolemus, Orestes
David Ryall: Poet, Tyndareus, Peleus, Telephus, Palamedes, Polymestor
Mia Yoo: Leda, Deidamia, Electra, Hermione, Iphigenia, Polyxena
In association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, London. Written by John Barton. Additional text by Colin Teevan. Directed by Edward Hall and Peter Hall. Scenic and costume designer Dionysis Fotopoulos. Lighting by Sumio Yoshii. Composer and musical director Mick Sands. Choreographer Donald McKayle. Sound by David R. White. Production manager Rick Barbour.