Aeschylus gets remixed

Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA -- If you were a hip-hop artist looking to update a classical tragedy, you'd have to clock quite a few hours in the library before coming up with Aeschylus' "Seven Against Thebes." You'd also have to be willing to rewrite the play from start to finish if you wanted to keep an audience from drifting off to dreamland.

All credit to Will Power, then, for making "The Seven," his DJ-driven, street-slangy adaptation of Aeschylus' processional drama, so lively. The production, which opened Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse, may not have anything profound to say, but it sure is fun to sit through.

Plenty of buoyant, interdisciplinary talent has been lavished on this project, which premiered off-Broadway in 2006. Developed and directed by Jo Bonney, the piece sets out to break boundaries with profane, crotch-grabbing glee.

Power, who wrote the book and lyrics, collaborated on the music with Will Hammond and Justin Ellington to create a soundscape that samples rap, funk, doo-wop and even some Broadway blues invoking "Dreamgirls." Bill T. Jones sculpted the choreography around stylized movement, a little bit of dance and a few choice yoga maneuvers.

The dynamic multiracial cast, which includes an all-purpose (and highly agile) chorus, slinks around Richard Hoover's two-tier set, graced by a winding staircase and video screens projecting shadowy atmospherics.

A more straightforward handling of Aeschylus would probably never get off the ground. Not that "Seven Against Thebes" doesn't have a compelling story. The final (and only surviving) installment of a trilogy about the woebegone Oedipus clan, the play builds in a stately, archaic fashion toward a showdown between the king's sons -- Eteocles, the ruler of Thebes, and Polynices, the would-be usurper threatening to sack his hometown.

The bulk of the plot, which leaves off where Sophocles' "Antigone" begins, is conveyed through speeches and choral odes bundled in dense Aeschylean imagery. One by one, Eteocles selects Theban defenders to take on the seven foreigners leading the invasion. The suspense, which is heightened by descriptions of the hostile warriors' heraldry, climaxes when Eteocles pits himself against Polynices -- thereby ensuring that their father's curse, calling for the men to be slaughtered in a fratricidal blood-bath, will come to fruition.

Switch the mixes and pump up the volume. Power is about to lay it on us, Snoop Dogg-style.

Standing behind her turntables, Chinasa Ogbuagu assumes the role of DJ and welcomes us to this "hip-hop Greek tragedy" party. To set the tone, she plays some plummy-voiced actor wailing about a "house of endless tears" and "the curse of your father that bears fruit in you."

"Yo, he kinda pessimistic, right," she adds.

Oedipus (Edwin Lee Gibson), all pimped out in flashy duds, unleashes his bile from the upper tier of the club-like set. His fervent wish is that his two ungrateful and ruthlessly ambitious boys "wallow in the same family blood and die right there in the cold mud."

He's obviously no forgiver. But his strapping sons -- Benton Greene plays Eteocles and Jamyl Dobson plays Polynices -- are determined to find a way around his imprecation. They decide to share power, alternating as monarchs on a yearly basis. So simple! No reason to turn monstrous like dad.

Naturally, hubris gets in the way. But unlike Aeschylus, whose approach is sweepingly public, Power limits the focus to the personal struggle against a cruel destiny. The question here is: Can a man transcend a miserable and mind-colonizing father? Of course, the answer is already decided. The interest is in how the catastrophic psychology plays out.

Before the inexorable downward spiral, Polynices lolls about in the forest with his lover, Tydeus (Flaco Navaja). The itch to take over Thebes is born out of a desire to save the place from his brother's rule. But Tydeus sees his muscular prince diving headlong into disaster. He tries reasoning with him, and when that doesn't work, he pulls a Jennifer Holliday.

Power keeps tossing out chuckling anachronisms. Mentions of Phat Farm togas, Theban marines and psychics (rather than seers) never fail to get a rise, but you can't help wishing that the ideas were assembled into a more rigorous intellectual framework.

The central motif is the lineage of family suffering -- "all the Mack Daddies back to the beginning of time, choking each other on the family line." But even this theme gets lost in the rambunctious desire to entertain. It's as if the creators are so intent on not boring us they're afraid to ask us to think for too long about their revised myth.

Aeschylus' play, with its talk of towers falling and its snapshots of a hysterically fearful populace, offers an image of apocalypse circumvented only by Eteocles' somberly heroic death march. In many ways, the original seems more modern than Power's renovation, which is too willing to distract us from sustained contemplation of such glanced at topics as black-on-black crime and the notion that all wars ultimately set brother against brother.

Compared with "The Gospel at Colonus," Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's wrenching gospel version of Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus," "The Seven" seems rather superficial. Yet its vitality is infectious. Here's a genuine instance in which a fresh sensibility wins out over fragmented sense.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'The Seven'

Where: : La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 16

Price: $34 to $60

Contact: : (858) 550-1010

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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