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By Glenn Loney, December 23, 2000

"TANTALUS" WORLD PREMIERE—John Barton's epic drama lights up the atrium of the Denver Center for Performing Arts. Photo: ©Glenn Loney, 2000.
[01] Ten-Hour "Tantalus"
[02] "Tantalus" Back-Up Books
[03] Denver Center Shows

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Here are views of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, scene of the World Premiere of Sir Peter Hall's ten-hour production of John Barton's TANTALUS. [©Glenn Loney, 2000]

Denver's Ten-Hour Tantalus-Marathon [*****]

"TANTALUS" POSTER ART—Symbolic abduction of Helen by Paris. Photo: ©Glenn Loney, 2000.
In mounting John Barton's dramatic epic of the Trojan War, Tantalus, Sir Peter Hall avoided cramming his stage with classic temples, Greek warships, and Trojan towers.

Instead, audiences entering the semi-classic amphitheatre of The Stage at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts discovered a sandy beach, complete with a Lifeguard perch. The circular stage was covered with sand—as is the arena in the great Hellenistic theatre at Epidaurus.

But at Epidaurus, it's clear at the outset that a modern performance of an ancient Greek Tragedy—or comedy—is about to take place on that sand.

In Denver—with pretty girls in sexy bikinis strewn about the stage on beach-towels—this seemed no place for the Trojan War to be re-enacted.

But playwright John Barton has been inspired by the example of Homer—and later classic rhapsodes and story-tellers—who held ancient Greek audiences in thrall merely by reciting the details of the two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

An affable old gaffer [David Ryall], selling souvenir kitsch, began to tell the beach-girls about the gods and the men and women who were involved in the Trojan War. But he was not just a modern Homer or a reciter of old fables.

Donning costume fragments, he became much more than "The Poet." In turn, he was Tyndareus, Peleus, Telephus, Palamedes, and Polymestor.

Other noted RSC performers fleshed out the rapidly developing and complicated, intertwining tales. Alan Dobie was slyly powerful as Odysseus and oracular as Calchas. Both of these mythic characters have their own agendas in the great war.

THE TROJAN WAR IN DENVER—Alyssa Bresnahan in the Denver Theatre Center/RSC's "Tantalus." Photo: ©P. Switzer, 2000.
Alyssa Bresnahan was a sea-damp Thetis, a raging Cassandra, and the Delphic Pythoness. Ann Mitchell played a hectic Hecuba, the Nurse, and Aethra.

WHO IS TO BLAME?—Annalee Jeffries in the RSC's Denver production of "Tantalus." Photo: ©P. Switzer, 2000.
Mia Yoo was admirable in six roles: Leda, Deidamia, Electra, Hermione, Iphigenia, and Polyxena. Annalee Jeffries had only four women to interpret, but they were central and powerful: Clytemnestra, Andromache, Ilione, and Helen herself.

MYTHIC GREEKS—Greg Hicks and Ann Mitchell in John Barton's "Tantalus." Photo: ©P. Switzer, 2000.
Greg Hicks was majestic—if variously troubled—as three great kings: Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Priam. Robert Petkoff specialized in the epic's more rash, violent, and youthful characters: Achilles, Aegisthus, Neoptolemus, and Orestes.

The beach-girls followed the action from the circumference of the sandy arena, but they were finally drawn into the fray as well. Although the classic Greek Chorus numbered first 15 and later 12, Hall's Tantalus. had only ten women in the chorus.

There were nine men in the Ensemble, which filled in the other roles and crowd-scenes as required.

Designer Dionysis Fotopoulos suggested the scenes and machines of the Trojan War with an eloquent minimalism. Weapons, shields, set-props, and costumes created the mythic milieu. Instead of a monumental Trojan Horse, he provided two great wheels—which were all that was seen of this stalking-steed as it was pushed into Troy through an upstage breach.

It was amazing to behold this production, not only because of the ingenuity with which Barton has covered so much legend, time, and space, but also for the impressive energy and passion with which the cast performed his texts, never letting up.

If anything, at the conclusion of the final marathon cycle, there seemed to be a kind of joy, of exaltation, when the cast came before the ecstatic audience.

For some, it was a disappointment in Part III—which is titled The Homecomings—not to be shown the return of Agamemnon, with his slave Cassandra, to his vengeful wife, Cassandra. And to his bloody death.

Nor did spectators get to see that famous homecoming in Ithaca, with the patient Penelope putting off her ardent suitors with the never-finished tapestry.

But, because these homecomings are by now so well known, Barton didn't need to recreate them. In fact, much that transpired on stage—and even more in his complete text—provided powerful dramatic linkages between already familiar aspects of the legends of the Trojan War and its aftermath.

It may seem astonishing that Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company could not find the funds at home to mount Barton's major epic, Tantalus. But public subsidies for performing arts are shrinking all over the European Union.

What is more astonishing, however, is that this challenging production was finally made possible, not by New York funding, nor a New York venue such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. In America's Mile-High City of Denver!

After its tremendous success in Denver—playing 15 complete cycles, some in ten-hour performance-days—it will be offered at the RSC's home and later in Greece. It ought to be seen at BAM—or even in Manhattan, at Lincoln Center—but it may not be possible to keep the production intact for a long tour.

So those who are fascinated by the myths and legends of Ancient Greece—and who want to see the gods and heroes and women involved in the Trojan War alive onstage—should make plans to see Tantalus as soon as it opens across the Atlantic.

John Barton spent over two decades exploring the legendary roots, processes, and aftermath of that great conflict. His imaginative reconstruction not only synthesizes many sources—some disparate—trying to make meaning out of that epic disaster. But it also poses the seemingly unanswerable question: Who Was To Blame?

At the close of the epic, an angry chorus-jury in Delphi, home of Apollo's Oracle, is determined to make Helen pay with her life for the destruction and suffering she has caused. Unfortunately for them, their thirst for vengeance is misplaced.

The real Helen was in Egypt, not in Troy—where she was only an image. The god intervenes at the trial and raises Helen up into the Heavens where she becomes a radiant star.

For those who have wondered what did happen to Helen when the Greeks either freed—or captured—her from Priam's Court, Barton provides an impressive answer. Despite her husband Menelaus' misgivings about what she was doing, thinking, and feeling during her years of absence from him. [Opera fans already know about The Egyptian Helen, from Richard Strauss' opera of the same name.]

As staged by Sir Peter Hall and his son Edward Hall—with additional texts by dramaturg Colin Teevan—the Royal Shakespeare Company-Denver Center Theatre Company production/adaptation of John Barton's ten-play Tantalus Cycle features only nine of the mythic names in Barton's published Trojan War Pantheon.

Rumor had it that a complete production of Barton's text would have run some sixteen hours.

Divided into three sections, the plays as performed were: Part I: The Outbreak of War— Prologue, Telephus, Iphigenia; Part II: The War— Neoptolemus, Priam, Odysseus; Part III: The Homecomings— Cassandra, Hermione, Helen & Epilogue.

Barton, however, provided more text to perform. His titles are Apollo, Telephus, Iphigenia, Neoptolemus, Priam, Odysseus, Cassandra, Hermione, Helen, Erigone and Zeus, which opens and closes the grand cycle.

It is rumored—and entirely understandable—that Barton was not too pleased with the truncations of his masterwork. But he has certainly worked in the theatre—and with the Royal Shakespeare—long enough to realize that a sixteen-hour cycle of plays, newly created, is more than most modern audiences would sit through. Even if spread over four performance-days, as Richard Wagner's Epic RING Cycle is at Bayreuth.

Donald Sewall, Chairman of the Denver Center—and the prime-mover in making it possible for the RSC to produce Tantalus at all—considers this cycle to be one of the longest drama-marathons ever. If not the longest.

Although Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy can be now be performed in less than six hours—minus the original music and dance, of which we have no record, nor any accurate idea—its initial production, including ceremonies, is thought to have required an entire day, from dawn to dusk. So the Greeks themselves may have beaten the RSC and the Denver Theatre Center record 2500 years ago.

Actually, Robert Wilson's long-ago epic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music [BAM]. The Life & Times of Joseph Stalin, was twelve hours long. It began at 6 pm and ended in the dawn's early light at 6 am. By that time, the only surviving critics in the audience were Clive Barnes, John Simon, and your reporter. We watched in dazed surprise as forty blue ostriches whirled in place on stage, like avian dervishes.

Peter Stein's current German production of both parts of Goethe's Faust I & II is clocked in at something like twenty hours. I avoided seeing it at EXPO 2000 in Hannover, not because of the length so much as the fact that Stein expected his audience to be mobile and follow the action around a great Fair Exhibition Hall.

When I first saw the Oberammergau Passion Play in 1960, it was eight hours long. The next time it was produced, in 1970, it had been shortened to five hours. And allegedly anti-semitic slurs—such as the Jews refusing to accept Jesus as their Messiah—were also removed or moderated. This past summer—with new hats and decors—it is now six hours long. But Oberammergau's Sanhedrin was still not willing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

The Trojan War has been over for Millennia. Not the religious wars in the Holy Land, however. John Barton might find in that on-going Epic of Faith and Death a "tantalizing" subject for yet another cycle!

Back-Up Books for Denver's Tantalus

In addition to the custom-designed T-shirts which now memorialize every cultural and sporting event, plus special souvenirs, the Denver Center Theatre Company offered two important books in the spacious lobby of the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex.

For critics and scholars, the most important of these was the austere black volume of John Barton's own original texts of the ten-play cycle: TANTALUS: Ten New Plays on Greek Myths. Published by Oberon Books in London, this bulky paperback is 511 pages long. Although it sold in the lobby for $25, it is priced to sell in the US for $19.99 and in the UK for £9.99.

For those who saw the Denver production of the cycle—or who will see it in Britain at the Royal Shakespeare—this is the authoritative reference for what was cut and what was added or replaced by the texts of Colin Teevan.

The ten plays are Apollo, Telephus, Iphigenia, Neoptolemus, Priam, Odysseus, Cassandra, Hermione, Helen, Erigone. In fact, there are really eleven dramas, for these are bracketed by Zeus, as both Prologue & Epilogue.

These vital dramas make fascinating reading, especially because they are in essence a long epic poem, intriguing in its explications of mysterious ancient myths and immediate in the way Barton particularizes both gods and humans. Barton's poetic language, however, is simple, forceful, and contemporary, seasoned with wit and even some broad jests.

A STAGE FOR DIONYSOS—Opening segment of classic theatre exhibtion at Denver Center. Photo: ©Glenn Loney, 2000.
The other important book on sale was A STAGE FOR DIONYSOS: Theatrical Space & Ancient Drama. This handsome and richly illustrated volume was published by Kapon Editions in Athens in 1998, with dual texts in Greek and English.

It is the permanent record of a colorful exhibition of the same name, surveying classic drama, its conventions & traditions, its performance venues, and even notable modern productions of the Attic tragedies & comedies and their Roman, Renaissance, and Neo-Classical revisions.

A huge illuminated map of the Mediterranean and the lands in North Africa, the Middle East, Europe and even Britain—where Romans and Greeks had constructed classic theatres—dominated the entry to this impressive touring show. There are scores of these theatres—great and small—on this map, many of them still extant, though in various stages of ruin or restoration.

The archival and contemporary photographs of Roman theatres, in particular—many of them built in the outposts of Empire, often adjoining the military headquarters of Roman Legions—remind one of the contrast between that ancient civilization and its culture and ours. Their great stone theatres have outlasted even Post World War II American Occupation Forces Quonset-Hut Theatres, erected on US Army Bases in Germany and Austria. But then their stages were occupied by such mythic figures as Electra and Orestes, while ours featured only cinema-images of Gidget Goes To Hawaii.

A Stage for Dionysos does not limit itself to Greek dramas, anymore than it is limited to Greek Theatres. Roman and Renaissance adaptations of the great Greek tragedies are documented in powerful photos and sketches. And famous adaptations of Greco-Roman Theatres such as the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza are also featured.

The day after the final cycle of Tantalus, the entire exhibition was dismantled and crated up in a few hours for shipment to its next venue. It has been on the road since 1997, when it was premiered in Greek Thessalonika.

Other cities visited include London, Plovdiv, and Syracuse. Not the one in New York State, but in Sicily, which has a magnificent extant classical theatre. The show's New York venue was not NYC, nor Syracuse, but SUNY Binghamton. Hardly a center of classical culture, nor a site with an ancient amphitheatre.

Plovdiv—once a great Roman outpost in what is now Bulgaria—has a stunning Roman Theatre high on a steep mountain-side, its semi-circular rows of seats looking out over a vast plain, with more mountains in the distance.

Over the decades, it has been my good fortune to have visited and photographed this and many other of the surviving classical theatres. So strolling through this impressive exhibition was like meeting old architectural friends again.

The next venue, I was told by the show's packers, will be somewhere near Toronto. They didn't seem to know the name of the place. Ottawa, perhaps?

Why can't it come to New York City? There are so many university theatre—and architecture—programs in NYC, surely one of them would be glad to be a sponsor? It would be a cultural loss if the exhibition is not shown here! At least the book should be made available.

Other Shows at the Denver Center:

While the Denver Center Theatre Company keeps its own stages busy, there are other venues in the great Center for the Performing Arts—which dominates the Mile-High City's cultural life. Annie is followed immediately in January by Annie Get Your Gun in the Center's Buell Theatre. Major Broadway musicals tour regularly through Denver, including The Scarlet Pimpernel.

In the coming year, among other attractions will be Dame Edna, Eartha Kitt in Cinderella, and both Aida and Beauty and the Beast from Disney. In 2002, Denver will be the first stop on the national tour of The Lion King. Leading up to that event will be Contact, Swing, and Kiss Me, Kate.

FIRST-DATE FRENZY—Elizabeth Rose & Mark Devine in Denver Center's staging of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." Photo: ©—Laszlo, 2000.
In the Center's Garner Galleria Theatre, the popular young-lovers' four-hander I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is selling out to both young and older audiences. This attractive show—with original direction by Joel Bishoff—is as charming, witty, and dynamic as it was originally in New York.

Joe Di Pietro's clever lyrics and comic sketches are modern classics which hit the bullseye with both those in the throes of young love and those who have been through it some time ago. Jimmy Roberts' music is catchy and often as clever as the lyrics.

The Denver cast of Mark Devine, Jordan Leigh Gurner, Elizabeth Rose, and Gina Schuh-Turner is attractive, versatile, energetic, and endearing. If I didn't know that they have multiple credits on Denver-area stages, I could well have believed they were on tour from New York or Los Angeles. New Yorkers often forget—or are not even aware—that there is a lot of admirable professional talent out there beyond the Hudson River.

George Kelly's The Show-Off

UNWANTED SON-IN-LAW—Kathleen Brady, as Ma Fisher, suffers silently while Jamie Horton, as Aubrey Piper, enthuses in George Kelly's "The Show-Off." Photo: ©Terry Shapiro, 2000.
Despite the epic demands of Tantalus on The Stage of the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, the Center Theatre Company was also able to mount an impressively "period" revival of George Kelly's The Show-Off in its intimate Ricketson Theatre.

Jamie Horton was a very interesting Aubrey Piper, the Show-Off of the title. He was brash, boastful, and irritating in his clichés and certainties, but these masked a deep-seated insecurity. He seldom let the mask slip, but when it did, momentarily, he was a study in disappointment and confusion.

As the de-facto boss of her family, Kathleen M. Brady's Ma Fisher was a rock of tradition, propriety, and conventional opinions. As the wealthily but unhappily married older sister Clara, Annette Helde was a portrait in smart flapper styling, thanks to designer David Kay Michelsen.

Her kid sister, Amy, as played by Elizabeth Rainer, was a bubble-headed delight in her infatuation with—and defense of—the ridiculously toupéed and outfitted Aubrey.

Chris Kelly, as Joe, the young inventor, was properly Horatio Algerish. But it was Aubrey's brash boastfulness that saved the day for him and paved the way for him to make millions off his basement discovery.

George Kelly's social satires could be hilarious—like The Torchbearers, affectionately mocking amateur theatricals. But his sharp critical eye didn't permit him to deal in character stereotypes.

He permitted his stage-people to be as prickly, obstinate, and difficult as he found them in real life. Later, he discarded any suggestion of sentimentality, however, when he wrote Craig's Wife, with the House-Proud Harriet Craig.

Although Michael Ganio's design for Ma Fisher's humble parlor featured a kitsch-museum's worth of ghastly period collectibles, as staged by Nagle Jackson, this was no condescending time-travel journey back into the American Past. Jackson and his cast made the characters—even the outsize Aubrey—real, touching, and even a bit contemporary, under the period outer-garments. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2000. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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