To Ancient Troy (By Way of Denver)
My 12 1/2 Hours With the Denver Center's New Greek Epic 'Tantalus'
Just before 10am -- ancient Greece and modern Denver. The two locales are so incongruous that their pairing seems more like the opening of a joke ("So Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax are watching a Broncos game ...") than the subject and home city, respectively, for one of the most monumental theatrical projects of the year. And yet, here they are. In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, a new epic cycle of plays based in the legends of the Trojan War is being given its world premiere: Tantalus, a string of 10 dramas developed by British playwright John Barton over a span of 20 years.
And here Tantalus is for a reason. A work of this size and scope would exhaust the resources of most theatre companies -- indeed, even the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), which commissioned Tantalus, could not mount the finished work by itself. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, however, could. Founded by Donald R. Seawell, a man with seriously deep pockets, it's that rare theatre with the means to support such a colossal enterprise. When the project was foundering for lack of a producer, Seawell -- also a longtime governor of the RSC -- committed the millions necessary to produce Tantalus at his theatre, in association with the RSC. Thus, the father-son directorial team of Sir Peter Hall and Edward Hall, a cast of English and American actors, and designers from around the globe convened in the Mile High City for six months to develop a new work of ancient Greek drama.
And here I am, at the end of those six months, one of several hundred audience members in the Denver Center's Stage Theatre waiting for the first performance of Tantalus to begin. We are taking our seats in the middle of the morning because the Denver Center has chosen to open the show by presenting Tantalus in its entirety in a single day. With nine plays in the cycle (one of Barton's original 10 plays was deleted) and time for breaks between plays, that's 121é2 hours. We'll see three plays, eat lunch, see three plays, eat dinner, and see three plays.
The mood in the theatre at the outset is one of guarded optimism. It's safe to say that everyone present is hoping to witness the birth of a thrilling theatrical spectacle and not a dramatic catastrophe. The project collaborators certainly offer cause for hope. Sir Peter Hall and John Barton are, to borrow the words of Guardian critic Michael Billington, "titans of post-war theatre." Sumio Yoshii is Japan's leading lighting designer. Scenic and costume designer Dionysis Fotopoulos has an illustrious résumé of stage and film work. Choreographer Donald McKayle has been named one of 100 "Irreplaceable Dance Treasures" by the Library of Congress. These, you'd like to believe, are artists who know what they're doing.
Still, the rehearsal process was not without its own dramas. Barton stormed off the project when Sir Peter and his team argued for losing one of the 10 plays. A third director, Mick Gordon, who was part of the project in the early weeks, took leave one day and never returned. Three actors had to be replaced. Then, the usual internal tensions that challenge all stage projects -- romances, breakups, artistic differences -- were amplified by the length of the rehearsal period and the scale of the work. Were these enough to cripple the production?
The 600 or so of us in the house (including almost 100 critics from across the U.S. and Great Britain) are hoping not. We're hoping that the four weeks of preview performances gave the production team enough time and audience response to adjust for whatever troubles the show might have suffered. But even as we hope this, we're also wondering whether it's ever possible to have enough time to wrangle nine plays -- a full eight hours of material -- into a dramatically compelling whole. We shift in our seats, rattle our programs, chat about baseball, a cloud of uncertainty hovering over our heads.
Then, the lights go down, and we're off ...
10am, Prologue... to a beach on the Aegean. Immediately, Tantalus transports its audience to the land of Heracles and Helen and the gods of Olympus, though not their era. It starts in the present, with nine young women in swimsuits spread across the circular stage, covered in sand. One stands under the drizzle of a working shower, but most lounge ... that is, until their reverie is interrupted by a scruffy old bounder in a rumpled suit hawking souvenirs. Mostly, he's selling small statues of ancient gods and heroes, but what he really wants these women to buy is a story. He's peddling the saga of the Trojan War. When the women protest that they know the tale already, he promises to tell them parts of the story that they've never heard before, parts no one else remembers, that didn't survive the centuries. Having intrigued them, the old poet launches into the "Epic Cycle of the Lost Bits."
Thus does Tantalus begin, with that oldest of dramatists, the storyteller, prancing across the sand, adopting various voices, using the detritus of the beach -- a lifeguard's chair, a trash barrel, the rotted shell of a rowboat -- to give life to an old tale. It's an enticing start, especially as handled by David Ryall, an actor with a rascally appeal and wry, raspy voice. He animates the words and makes the cycle's convoluted backstory -- with its trysts between gods and mortals and mortals and nymphs, bitter feuds that span generations, and rival abductions (the Trojan maiden Hesione is stolen away by Heracles years before Helen's capture from Sparta) -- seem not merely interesting but important, essential to our grasp of the Trojan War and its tragedies.
Gradually, Ryall is joined by other actors and his epic evolves from narrative woven by a storyteller to true drama, dialogue and action played out for us. And with this change, the effects employed by the two Halls and the Tantalus company change, too, becoming more extravagant and theatrical: When a sea nymph is mentioned, an actress mysteriously appears from the depths of a small pool at stage left. A warrior is introduced, and an actor rises from beneath the sand, as if born of the earth. We're drawn more deeply into this world, both by the way the characters are represented and in the surprising ways they are presented.
And for the love of Zeus, there are so many characters to get to know. By 11am, we're introduced to the man Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis; Achilles, the warrior reared by bears; the sisters Clytemnestra and Helen and the brothers (and ultimately husbands to the sisters) Agamemnon and Menelaus; Hesione, who is stolen away, and her brother Priam, left behind to rule Troy; and perhaps most significantly, Tantalus, the titular king from whose house so many of the war's major players spring.
Though never portrayed as a character here, Tantalus earns the title of the cycle by virtue of his vice. A friend to Zeus, he was invited to feast with the gods on Olympus, where he came to covet godhood and so stole some of the gods' life-sustaining ambrosia. His punishment was to be forever bound to a fruit tree standing in a pool of water; when he was hungry or thirsty and would try to get some of the water or fruit, it would move just beyond his reach. As if that weren't enough, Zeus suspended over him a great boulder that might fall on him at any time.
That rock is much more interesting to John Barton than the fruit or water that "tantalize" the greedy king throughout eternity. Several times during the course of the cycle, we hear it shift, a thunderous grinding of stone on stone, threatening sudden catastrophe. To Barton, it is a mythic emblem of the harsh, unpredictable cosmos in which we live, and he returns to it again and again to remind us how precarious our existence is, how little of it we can control. Our past we cannot change or escape; our future we cannot command. The best we can do is accept our mortality and live in the present as fully as we can, taking each moment as it is. It's a strain of existentialism so strong that under the rumbling roar of the rock you can almost hear Samuel Beckett laughing -- and it feels incongruously modern at first. But as with so much of Tantalus, what seems initially to be out of place or too contemporary proves to be fundamental to the work, an aspect that reveals its power only in the light of repetition and later events.
But that was later; this is now. The lights come up again for the first time, as Tantalus has just packed 50 years of Greek history into as many minutes. Dense as it is, the epic is off to a promising start -- rich enough in humor and theatrics and surprises to remain intriguing.
11:10am, TelephusWith its wealth of backstory established, Tantalus moves to Mycenae, where Agamemnon has his hands full trying to keep the tribes of the West united for their assault on Troy. This is a fractious bunch, full of hot-blooded, hot-headed warriors such as Achilles, who would just as soon skip this mission to rescue Helen. It doesn't help Agamemnon's cause that the fleet has already sailed for Troy once and, owing to either a trick of the gods or the lack of a navigator, overshot its target, forcing the forces to sail back and start over. An undercurrent of human folly provides moments of humor in this and all the plays in the cycle, but the dominant mood here is tension: between spouses Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, between warriors Agamemnon and Achilles, and, with the appearance of the title character, a Mysian man who wants Achilles to heal the wound the warrior made in his leg, between Achilles and everyone. Telephus' request might seem a simple humanitarian plea, devoid of drama, but in this atmosphere of war and supernatural intervention, paranoia runs wild. Is Telephus lying? Is he an agent of the gods who will destroy the Greeks if Achilles fulfills his request?
In deciding what to do with Telephus, Achilles faces an impossible choice, and we'll see such choices again and again throughout Tantalus: the protagonist faced with a decision that could hold salvation for everyone or lead to the destruction of all that person holds dear. It's the magnitude of such decisions that are part of the ancient Greek drama's power, and Barton preserves that overwhelming power in his "lost bits." And in this particular play, the Halls and company do a splendid job of filling the air with suspicion and doubt, with the agonized cries of David Ryall's Telephus adding a disturbing urgency to the proceedings.
12:15pm, IphigeniaIn what feels like a flash, we're already at the end of the first trilogy. Now, the Greek fleet is stalled at Aulis. The ships can't sail because the goddess Artemis has stopped the wind in retaliation for Agamemnon killing a stag in her sacred grove. (This act inspires one of the cycle's most striking sets: a larger-than-life-size stag impaled upside-down on a spear, a crimson ribbon dangling from its mouth.) Artemis will be appeased only if Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to her. It's another impossible choice: sacrifice the rescue of Helen and the cause of a nation or sacrifice the innocent flesh of his flesh.
Barton has chosen one of the Trojan War's more familiar tales here, but true to his concept of "lost bits," he gives it a very different spin. Here, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia agree to the sacrifice and must convince a reluctant Agamemnon to commit to it. The shift is unexpected and even startling, but it doesn't diminish the pain in Agamemnon's decision or rob actor Greg Hicks of the chance to convey that pain in all its depth. Hicks had already distinguished himself -- his sonorous voice and regal posture commanding attention -- but here he expands the character's dimensions to include a paternal love and anguish that is deeply affecting.
1:15pm, LunchFor its marathon presentations of Tantalus, the Denver Center provides meals in the ballroom on a floor above the stages. Following the conclusion of Iphigenia, the opening-day audience is steered to an escalator that runs to the ballroom, where dozens of tables groan with sandwiches, salads, breads, and bottles of wine. Not a hard way to pass the time between shows.
Reflecting on the cycle's first trilogy, I find Tantalus surprisingly engaging. The texts are heavy on rhetoric and debate, as the original Greek tragedies were, but Barton's punchy, often droll dialogue and contemporary attitude keep the exchanges lively and immediate. The use of masks takes some adjustment and is occasionally distracting even late in the day, but it's a device which so grounds Tantalus in a particular time and space that it's worth accepting.
2:45pm, NeoptolemusWe return to the theatre to find the Trojan War in its 10th year and the forces of the West considering a desperate gamble: trying to convince the Trojans that they're giving up the war by sailing their ships away and leaving a giant wooden horse behind. Of course, the horse will actually be filled with Greek warriors, who will emerge to conquer the city once it is brought inside the city walls. Given the familiarity of this story, it might seem overripe for dramatization, but Barton treats it like a movie heist, focusing on the diciness of the plan and how fearful the Greeks are of it backfiring, of the warriors being discovered or the Trojans leaving the horse outside the city or burning it in tribute to the gods. In the dim light of a military camp, with Hicks' Agamemnon weary and skeptical and Alan Dobie's Odysseus all fierce pragmatism, the debates over the horse become unexpectedly fresh and gain an air of danger. The plan's success depends on the cooperation of a young boy -- the titular Neoptolemus, Achilles' son -- who must pretend to be a girl left behind by the Greeks and must sell the Trojans on the story of the Greeks' departure. Neoptolemus, who despises deception and is twice the firebrand his father was, hates the plan and says so. Robert Petkoff not only convinces us of the character's youth but of the shame he feels in having to lie. He turns what could be the least credible of the "impossible choices" into one that fascinates.
3:50pm, PriamAt the midpoint of the cycle, when you think you know just what to expect from this production, the Tantalus company throws you a curve, delivering the work's most visually compelling and theatrical episode. At the rear of the stage, scenic designer Dionysis Fotopoulos sets a giant stone head, the ruin of a monumental statue on which the cursed prophetress Cassandra sits. He makes the title character walk on stilts, hunched over and leaning on long thin canes. He encases Priam's bald head in a golden neck brace and extends his long black coat to the ground, so he is a wizened spider of a man, gingerly creeping over the landscape. This play shifts us inside the walls of Troy to see how Priam grapples with the issue of the Trojan horse and ultimately decides to bring it inside its walls. Our sunbathers, who began merely observing the action and have been absorbed into it, gradually donning costumes and masks and assuming the role of chorus, play a key role in the decision. They argue vehemently for Priam to accept that the war has ended, with Troy victorious. Priam is leery, suspicious of a trick, but his fascination with the "girl" played by Neoptolemus weakens his resolve and he gives in. Moving with delicate deliberation, speaking in dry, elongated phrases, Greg Hicks makes the aged ruler supremely creepy, and yet he never completely sacrifices Priam's humanity. His vulnerability is clear, especially where his long-lost sister Hesione is concerned, and though we may recoil from him, it is hard to watch his downfall.
When the decision is finally made to admit the horse into the city, Tantalus delivers its dramatic masterstroke. The walls at the rear of the stage part to show the towering wheels of the horse rolling past. Drenched in blood-red light, this image, combined with the thunderous creaking of the wheels and our knowledge of what is to come, makes a moment of spectacular dramatic impact, a moment which realizes all the grand ambitions of this project.
4:55pm, OdysseusAs the Denver sky begins to dim, we return to Troy, now a fallen city. Although that fact might seem to relegate this play to the ranks of the anticlimactic, Odysseus seethes with tension. Between Barton's vivid descriptions of the battle within the city and the arrival of Petkoff's Neoptolemus in gleaming golden armor, his skin from head to toe slick with crimson blood, the play sustains our sense of the violent conflict just played out. Barton also focuses on the well-known Trojan women, who have yet to surrender their defiant spirits. As Odysseus discusses their fate, being parceled off to the victorious Greeks, Hecuba -- a livid and unyielding Ann Mitchell -- fights to preserve the women's freedom and dignity. She charges the air, and Odysseus responds by having his soldiers strip the women. The Halls make the most of this brutal scene, creating an image -- naked women huddling at the rear of the stage, waiting to be branded -- which shocks and disturbs. The war is ended, but the war goes on.
6pm, DinnerWhile the second trilogy doesn't exactly leave one eager for food, it feels good to ascend the escalator again and head into the ballroom for a meal. I realize what a sense of communion it engenders in the group sharing this daylong journey. We partake of this rich theatrical feast together; we are all fed by this astonishing odyssey through myth and the human spirit. It feels right for us also to break bread literally, to commune vocally with each other at the table as well as witness silently in the theatre. I find myself wishing more theatre involved such communion.
9:45pm, Helen/Epilogue The plays in the final trilogy, "The Homecomings," are far from being of a piece, so it isn't exactly fair to lump them all together, but in the context of Tantalus, they share one significant quality: a lack of the dramatic momentum that propels the first two trilogies. Now, the aftermath of the Trojan War provides ample material for driving drama -- Odysseus' long voyage home to Ithaca, Agamemnon's return to Mycenae and the string of murders that provokes, to name two. Either could serve as the engine to drive the final trilogy, but Barton avoids these in favor of three only loosely connected "lost bits" involving Hecuba, Helen's daughter Hermione and her ill-fated match with Neoptolemus, and Helen herself, who is placed on trial for "war crimes." The narratives here are not without interest, but they feel as if they take the cycle down a different road -- one much more diffuse in purpose and acerbic in tone. It's like spending two days on the interstate, then veering off down a country road for a few hours.
Contributing to the somewhat disorienting quality of the final trilogy is Barton's overt shift toward the absurd. He repeatedly inserts into these plays images of grotesque comedy, as in Hecuba, when the title character, tongueless and mad, begins acting like a dog, and the Thracian king whom she has blinded enters doing a jaunty dance. Thrust into a dramatic context, these images are surreal and jarring. But as the cycle winds down, with almost the entire trial of Helen staged as travesty, there emerges a method in Barton's madness: He seems to be still using the evolution of dramatic style as a device (as he did when he moved from storytelling to dialogue drama) and is employing absurdism to reflect modern sensibilities in the wake of the 20th century's great wars. As we have struggled to find meaning in a meaningless universe, a way to live in a violent, increasingly absurd world, so have the figures of Tantalus. It's back to that boulder: How does one live under the threat of sudden catastrophe?
Barton and the production give us the most eloquent answer at the end of the seventh play, when a weary Agamemnon and a tormented Cassandra discover humanity in each other. Slowly, tenderly, they remove their masks. It's breathtaking to see these actors' faces for the first time. Then, just as slowly, just as tenderly, they slip out of their garments. They stand on the sand, facing each other, totally exposed creatures of flesh, and embrace. The moment is profound, an illustration of mortal vulnerability so simple and yet so complete, a haunting image of living in the present.
10:45pm, a Denver StreetThe epic is finished, the bows taken, the audience dispersed into the darkness. Walking back to my hotel, my body is moving through the Mile High City of today, but my mind is still back in the Aegean of old. What have I seen? Images from the cycle flit across my mind's eye, and I sense that I will be sifting through this experience, these plays and the myths they play off, for some time. And that's as it should be. The work that is seen and immediately understood -- digested, as it were -- is hardly worth the time it takes to sit through. The plays that linger in our heads, that stay to provoke, to puzzle, to haunt us, are the great works.
Still, if I had to distill this experience into one word right now, what might it be? I consider various adjectives -- majestic, fascinating, satisfying -- but the word I keep coming back to is: heroic. Why? What could be truly heroic about the performance of a play that wouldn't trivialize the word the way it has been so often in recent years? Perhaps this: At the heart of heroism is selflessness, a decision -- a conscious effort, an act of will -- to set aside one's own well-being for the well-being of others. Actors do this to some degree. In the true practice of their art, they set aside some part of themselves for the benefit of their audience, choosing to be less than they are so others may find pleasure or meaning. And those who play tragedy not only do this but do it while experiencing some of the most profound conflicts humans can imagine. It is no easy thing to put oneself in the position of choosing between the life of one's country and the life of one's child, to choose between the will of one's people and their safety, even for a play. It requires you to set your psyche on the sword's edge, your soul on the dagger's point, and touch a torment that most of us will never know. It is a difficult place to go, and the actors in Tantalus went there again and again, never faking it -- you can't in this kind of play -- but going the full distance, to the point of pain, and you could see in their manner that they were choosing to do this for something larger than a paycheck or applause. They were doing it for us, the audience, for our benefit, our enlightenment. Heroic, that's what this epic show was, a heroic journey to Troy by way of Denver.
Tantalus runs through December 2 at the Denver Center. Call 303/893-4100 or 800/641-1222, or visit www.denvercenter.org.