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A CurtainUp Review Tantalus

by Charles Whaley

Annalee Jefferies who like
other players assumes
multiple roles
(Photo: P. Switzer
To expect a present-day audience in these times of sound bites and short attention spans to sit through a 10-hour play about ancient Greek history and myth would seem a rather great expectation. But let us be glad that John Barton, who wrote Tantalus, and Sir Peter Hall, who has fine tuned Barton's massive and exciting work for its world premiere -- and only U.S. staging -- at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts were not deterred from carrying out their vision.

The sheer scope of this undertaking, which focuses on the beginnings, climax, and aftermath of the Trojan War that took place nearly 3000 years ago, appears as formidable as the walls of Troy itself. But Barton has made the drama amazingly accessible and involving by breaking the tale into 10 hour-long plays that bring to life so many of the legendary gods and mortals associated with the war: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Achilles, Cassandra, Orestes, Odysseus, Andromache, Electra, Helen, Hecuba, Iphigenia, Priam, Menelaus, and Leda, among others.

Barton's published text of Tantalus (Oberon Books, London) has been modified by Hall for the production, which divides the work into three parts. The three plays in Part I: The Outbreak of War are Prologue, Telephus, and Iphigenia. Part II: The War includes Neoptolemus, Priam, and Odysseus. Cassandra, Hermione, Helen & Epilogue are in Part III: The Homecomings.

This is not, however, a dramatization of the Iliad or Odyssey reputed to Homer. Barton has fleshed out the little-known summaries of the Trojan War that are known as the Epic Cycle. He explains in a program note that the cycle itself is long since lost but the summaries show it covered the whole saga of Troy and the House of Agamemnon. It was, he writes, clearly intended to encompass the whole story, apart from that which was already handled by Homer.

"The gaps in this story are filled from many ancient sources, not merely the surviving early summaries of the Epic Cycle," Barton notes, "but also Hesiod, Apollodorus and even some of the surviving or reconstructed fragments from the lost plays of the great classical dramatists themselves."

The result is so stunnning in its execution and its impact that all thoughts of sitting too long in a theatre seat quickly evaporate. One hates to see the plays end (they can be seen over two days or in one day, with scheduled breaks for Greek-themed dinners) and is eager to learn more about some of the characters who appear only fleetingly.

Tantalus himself, the title character, does not appear. It was he who drew the wrath of the gods and brought on the evils that led to the Trojan War. Tantalus had been a favorite of the gods but betrayed their trust by stealing their secrets and sharing them with his fellow humans. His punishment was to spend all eternity in a prison of darkness deep inside the earth, standing erect in a pool as water lapped his chin. The water receded when he tried to drink it. When he tried to grab luscious fruit hanging on a nearby tree the wind blew the branch out of reach. That's where we get the word "tantalizing." A huge rock that seemed about to fall was perched above his head.

Thus, Barton is saying, we all live under the threat of doom -- "death is certain but doom is postponed." Tantalus sought to learn the gods' secrets for the sake of mankind but his hubris brought the curse of "greed and stupidity" on his family.

Tantalus is a feast for the eyes from beginning (beautiful young women sunbathing, reading, and drinking wine on a Greek beach; they later are transformed into the chorus) to end (when Helen's abduction by Paris, the crucial event that launched the thousand ships and the Trojan War, is resolved --or is it? -- through a trial).

The actors perform on a stage of sand, and the multiple parts that each of them plays in masks are masterfully done. Thetis, the sea-nymph who gives birth to Achilles --he of the vulnerable heel-- after her rape by randy old Peleus, swims into view at pivotal moments to protect her doomed child. The Trojan horse's huge wooden wheels are projected on a screen as they roll through Troy's gates. Sacred serpents glide through one scene. Iphigenia, preparing to be sacrificed instead of marrying Achilles, throws her red wedding dress into a fire burning on the sand.

So many lines with contemporary relevance cry out for quotation:

"One can never be sure that the gods are on the side one thinks." (Clytemnestra)

"Men like you. . .love to use high words to justify their actions. It is always those big words that breed the big disasters. . . always the good men who are the real destroyers." (Peleus)

"I have already learned that our deeds matter less than the way others tell of them." (Achilles)

"The madness of men who assume they are obeying some god's command will destroy the world one day." (Agamemnon)

"All men and women each have a bit of the other inside them. Accept it and you find that ever after you will be much more of a man." (Peleus)

"True is a word humans have invented to give them a sense of meaning. Immortals do not use it." (Thetis)

"Revenge wins nothing back. It is only the beginning of a pointless, endless cycle. . ..till nobody remembers how or why it began." (Andromache)

"If war became a crime there would never be enough divine or human courts ever to try the criminal" (Calchas)

Barton has compared the form of his play with its short episodes to a soap opera. Family quarrels, deaths, sudden plot twists, various couplings ("another rape?" one character says wearily at one point), misunderstandings, reconciliations -- all these tried and true soap opera themes apply as well to the ancient Greek plots with their doses of ambiguity, contradiction, nobility, and suffering.

Despite the bloody happenings and the portentous events that occur, Barton's script is leavened with plenty of humorous exchanges. One of the chorus advises Cassandra that "you would have been happier if you'd slept with the god when he wanted -- like any decent girl." A miffed Clytemnestra tells Agamemnon that "by the time men have decided that something can't be done women will have done it."

One of the funniest gibes comes from Peleus after Agamemnon returns from a failed attempt to sail to Troy and sheepishly confesses that the fleet landed in the wrong place: "Do you mean to say you managed to get lost with a thousand ships?"

A brilliant company of four American and four British actors plus 19 other American actors as chorus and ensemble portrays the gods and mortals populating Tantalus. The ease with which they merge into one character after another, with their stylized masks as an integral part of their being, is phenomenal.

British actor Greg Hicks as the conflicted Agamemnon (he also excels as Priam and Menelaus) and American actor Alyssa Bresnahan as Cassandra (she's magnificent in that part and as Thetis; she also plays Pythoness) have a remarkable and touchingly erotic scene toward the end when they discard their clothing and masks to embrace their fate and each other.

The six other major actors are equally impressive: Alan Dobie (mysterious and stolid as a devious Odysseus; he also plays the prophet Calchas), Annalee Jefferies (superb as Clytemnestra, Andromache, Ilione, and Helen), Ann Mitchell (a force of nature as Queen Hecuba and wise and comforting as Nurse to the House of Tantalus; she also plays Aethra), Robert Petkoff (dynamic as Achilles and as Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles; he also plays Aegisthus and Orestes), David Ryall (outstanding as Peleus; he also plays Poet, Tyndareus, Telephus, Palamedes, and Polymestor), and Mia Yoo (heartbreaking as Iphigenia, amusingly butch as Electra, outrageously annoying as Hermione; she also plays Leda, Deidamia, and Polyxena).

Barton spent nearly 20 years developing Tantalus which is an extension of his earlier work The Greeks (1980). It was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), under the leadership of Trevor Nunn, after the huge success of Barton and Hall's collaboration on The Wars of the Roses consisting of all three parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI as well as Richard III. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, through its founder and chairman Donald R. Seawell, stepped in to produceTantalus in association with the RSC after financing for the $8 million production could not be found via the RSC. It is the most expensive regional theatre production in American history.

The play, under the direction of Sir Peter Hall and his son Edward Hall, rehearsed in Denver from March until the October opening. Hall cut the play from Barton's original 15 hours (Barton took issue with this) and had Irish playwright Colin Teevan provide additional text. Teevan and Anthony Powell became associate directors.

Greece's foremost theatre and film designer, Dionysis Fotopoulos, designed the production. Japan's Sumio Yoshii was lighting designer, Irish composer Mick Sands scored the production and Broadway choreographer Donald McKayle did the choreography.

After closing in Denver on December 2 Tantalus goes to England to play five venues before opening in London in April for a four-week run at the Barbican Theatre. Later it will be seen in Greece.

Before the play opened Sir Peter Hall conjectured that Tantalus could be a monumental success or a monumental flop despite all the talent and effort that went into it. He meant, of course, that it was a monumental gamble. The gamble has now paid off with a rich and most rewarding theater experience. For those fortunate to see it, Tantalus will be long remembered.

by John Barton
(additional text by Colin Teevan)
Directed by Peter Hall and Edward Hall
Associate Director and Tour Director: Anthony Powell
Associate Director and Production Dramaturg: Colin Teevan
Cast: Alyssa Bresnahan as Thetis, Cassandra, Pythoness; Alan Dobie as Odysseus, Calchas; Greg Hicks as Agamemnon, Priam, Menelaus; Annalee Jefferies as Clytemnestra, Andromache, Ilione, Helen; Ann Mitchell as Hecuba, Nurse, Aethra; Robert Petkoff as Achilles, Aegisthus, Neoptolemus, Orestes; David Ryall as Poet, Tyndareus, Peleus, Telephus, Palamedes, Polymestor; Mia Yoo as Leda, Deidamia, Electra, Hermione, Iphigenia, Polyxena.
The Chorus: Francesca Carlin, Joy Jones, Tess Lina, Jeanne Paulsen, Christina Pawl, Nicole Poole, Juliet Smith, Mia Tagano, Vickie Tanner, Robin Terry.
The Ensemble: Elijah Alexander, Joshua Coomer, Pierre-Marc Diennet, Morgan Hallett, Steve Hughes, Tif Luckenbill, David McCann, Randy Moore, Matt Pepper.
Musicians: Steve Hughes, Joy Jones, Christina Pawl, Mick Sands, Vickie Tanner, Yukio Tsuji.
Scenic and Costume Designer: Dionysis Fotopoulos
Lighting Designer: Sumio Yoshii
Composer and Musical Director: Mick Sands
Sound Designer: David White
Choreographer: Donald McKayle
Speech and Dialect Coach: Gary Logan
Dramaturg to John Barton: Graham Ley
Running Time: 10 hours without intermission; 12 hours with intermission
Denver Center --
Performances: 10/21/2000-12/2/00; opening 10/21/00 Review based on l0/25-26/2000 performance

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