Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Off-Broadway: These Seven Sicknesses

written by Sean Graney, after Sophocles
directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar

The most innovative staging in New York right now remounts one of theater's oldest bodies of work. Adapting Sophocles' complete plays, These Seven Sicknesses reimagines some of the most fundamental conventions of theater. Instead of shushing the audience under darkness while seven tragic acts play out solemnly onstage at the Flea, the cast mingles with the audience before the curtain, chatting, relaxing, and offering to fetch wine from the bar. At intermission, they serve dinner (a delicious eggplant curry) as well. By breaking down the conventional separation of stage and house, Sicknesses sets the audience up immediately for a evening of Greek theater that's unorthodox without being alienating.

Beware Greeks bearing eggplant curry?
photo: Laura June Kirsch
The performance itself follows suit with a lively low-tech staging. There's no bearded chorus chanting in unison to a be-togaed Oedipus. Instead, director Iskandar establishes a fast pace under the easygoing atmosphere: while the chorus sings a swinging blues, Oedipus shows his smarts by solving a Rubik's cube. Adaptor Graney has a loose poetic style that includes a great ear for idioms and a winning application of stock phrases. More importantly, he evokes ancient mythical elements without getting stuck in expository mode. As the evening moves from play to Sophoclean play, it brings back characters, places, props; Antigone (Katherine Folk-Sullivan, offering the most nuanced performance in the enormous, energetic cast), the Bow of Hercules, the Trojan War make multiple appearances. And so (naturally) does Greek theater's ubiquitous Messenger, who skims in on a sidewalk scooter, dressed like a telegram deliveryman, with news of another tragic offstage disaster.
Over the course of the evening, as the shades of the dead warn their daughters and sons of yet another impending tragedy, the tone darkens slowly like twilight falling. But Sicknesses never loses its sense of imagination. Even in its final act, Iskandar comes up with new theatrical devices for staging Sophocles' plots. His directorial brio matches the energy that Graney brings to Sophocles' work. Every few minutes brings another delightful moment: a clever line-reading, a cunning costume, a fantastic fight scene, a slab of warrior beefcake. The show works superbly from beat to beat, which makes the 5+ hours runtime (including intermissions for dinner & dessert) speed by. It slips in political commentary, offering perspectives on power and stances on waging war without obtruding into the mythic setting. Sicknesses is, quite simply, the sort of mounting of classical work that rekindles a passion for modern theater. It's also a fun party.


These Seven Sicknesses plays at the Flea, closing on March 4. Tickets? 


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