I have been extremely remiss in not writing anything for an entire month since I saw the Hypocrites’ marvelous production of all seven of Sophocles’s surviving tragedies, billed as Seven Sicknesses. The whole thing takes four hours, including two intermissions, one of which features a felafel dinner (included in the price of admission), but this isn’t Mourning Becomes Electra – the hours absolutely fly by, so riveted are you by these primal stories, so effectively told by an exceptionally talented cast of young actors, and so artfully woven together into a single (well, really a double) tapestry by director and adapter Sean Graney.
What slowed me down from writing about the show until now was my intention to write an absurdly well-informed piece, based on re-reading (or, in several cases, reading for the first time) the entire Sophoclean canon. But other reading and writing, as well as non-literary obligations, intervened, so that, to my shame, in a month I’ve only managed to read two of the plays (Philoctetes and The Thracinian Maidens, neither of which I had read before). So this review will not be quite so informed as it might have been. Hopefully it’s still worth reading.
The conceit of Graney’s play is that each of the Sophocles plays revolves around a sickness or wound of some sort. Thus: Oedipus’s land is cursed with plague because of his (unknown at the outset) crime in killing his father and bedding his mother; later, blind and dying, he comes to Colonus; Philoctetes’s foot is horribly infected from the bite of a magical snake; Ajax goes mad from rage at being passed over in favor of Odysseus when the question arises of who will inherit Achilles’s armor; and Herakles dies from the touch of a magic robe, given him by his wife, which she thought was smeared with a love potion but which in fact sears the flesh off whatever it touches. So Graney has set the entire set of seven plays in a hospital emergency room, staffed by two nurses who play the role of chorus (although more on that later). The play starts with a bang when, just after the new nurse comes on shift, a plague-ridden man is wheeled in on a gurney, followed by King Oedipus and his brother-in-law, Creon, arguing about the plague and how to heal the city. The man, we find out only later, is the very servant of Oedipus’s father who was charged with eliminating the royal son who, it was prophesied, would do precisely what Oedipus wound up doing. Through the combination of his master’s cruelty and his kindness, Oedipus’s terrible fate was fulfilled.
Bloodier stuff follows. Oedipus, of course, puts out his eyes. Herakles’s wife, Dejanira, burns her hand off accidentally touching the stuff that will kill her husband. The nurses amputate Philoctetes’s foot; Neoptolemus, Achilles’s son who has come to reclaim him for the Trojan war, gets an arrow from Herakles’s golden bow stuck in his hand, so the nurses have to pull that out as well. And Ajax slaughters an entire flock of imaginary sheep, not realizing he’s actually killing his wife. By the end of the night, the medical is largely abandoned in favor of a mortuary one, with Orestes’s murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, and Creon beating out Antigone’s brains in her brother’s grave because she would not refrain from burying him. There’s a reason that the seats closest the stage bear a warning that if you sit there, you may get spattered yourself with the copious red ooze.
But it is not an unremittingly bleak evening by any means. It’s not just that the violence is visceral, and that it varies in character – Ajax slaughters the sheep in mad fury, expressing his character the only way he knows how, even though it destroys him, while Creon kills Antigone in desperation, acting very much against his character in service of his belief in what his role demands, and Orestes kills his mother with a terrifying psychotic leer, the true nature of his character only being revealed – to himself and us – with this crime. But Graney also has a fine ear for the comic potential in these tragic scenarios – whether by having the nurses throw in a tart “it’s true” whenever a character says something about doctors or healing; or by dressing Chrysothemis, Electra’s better-adjusted sister, in a pink princess outfit, with suburban girl whine to match; or by having Creon repeatedly offer Antigone snacks as she digs her brother’s (and what will turn out to be her own) grave. Moreover, he made a handful of small translation choices that were extremely effective in bringing the text home, making it less remote. Two that stood out were his terms for mythological beasts. The sphinx he styled the “hell bitch” and the centaur he called the “horse-man” (or possibly “man-horse” – another reason to write sooner after seeing a show: memory is decreasingly reliable as time passes). Those simple changes wiped away the layers of sentimental imagery that had accumulated over time on figures that, originally, must have been terrifying. They’re not quite terrifying to us, but they do seem primal again, and therefore real, in a way that sphinxes and centaurs never could be.
The acting is very strong across the board. Pretty much every actor deserves a calling out, but particular highlights for me were Zeke Sulkes’s (full disclosure: a relative of mine) final appearance as a bitter old Jewish Creon in Antigone (he plays the same role in Oedipus and in Colonus but the character – and the characterization – deepens with each play of the cycle); Tien Doman as an authentic jilted wife as Dejanira, and then wildly different as a Clytemnestra the perfect suburban mom (not an interpretation I ever expected to see); Ryan Bourque as a coldly aristocratic Theseus (one of the best line-readings of the night, as well as one of the best Graney-isms, was Theseus to Oedipus after Oedipus thanks him for – he thinks, incorrectly – agreeing to bury him in Athens: “why does everyone in your family jump to conclusions?”), and Erin Barlow as a regal Jocasta and a weary Antigone – and, for that matter, as the shallow Chrysothemis, though this play, Elektra, really needs to be called out all on its own for being the pinnacle of the whole evening, and just for having so much great stuff going on: Geoff Button’s psychotic Orestes is a revelation, growing naturally out of the character we had already seen before he kills, and yet totally unexpected, and Lindsey Gavel’s Elektra is a brutally authentic portrait of this primordial troubled girl. And the pacing is perfect – not a single moment feels rushed, and not a single emotion feels like it’s being indulged beyond the capacity of the performance to sustain it.
What’s most interesting about the whole production, though, is the way Graney ties the various plays together. The three Oedipus plays – actually the three Creon plays; Oedipus doesn’t make it to the end – are already a cycle, but the other four plays are not originally connected. The thread that Graney uses to connect them is Herakles and his golden bow. He dies in In Trachis (Graney’s name for The Thracinian Maidens), leaving his golden bow to Philoctetes (who doesn’t appear in the play in the original Sophocles – Graney has merged him with another character to connect the plays). The bow follows Philoctetes into exile (on account of his stinking foot), to be retrieved by Neoptolemus, along with Philoctetes himself (who must be reintegrated into Greek society), then follows them both to Ajax, in which play Philoctetes finally gets to hear Odysseus admit error. This is enormously helpful for the audience in making sense of the narrative of the evening as a whole. And Graney is also very good about casting his actors so the roles they play in one cycle have relevance to the other. Thus: Sulkes plays Creon in the Oedipus cycle and Odysseus in the “golden bow” cycle, both of whom are politicians rather than natural leaders; Jeff Trainor plays Oedipus and Agamemnon, two kings who get into trouble trying to bend fate; Walter Briggs plays both Herakles and Ajax, two muscle-bound lugs who see violence as the answer to everything; etc. This, again, is enormously helpful to the audience given the number of story threads Graney winds up juggling across seven different plays.
So, having now praised this piece of theatre about as highly as I can, I’ll mention my only three reservations, two of which are readily remediable.
The most minor of these is the use of the messenger character. He’s called the “carrier” in the program, which I assume is an attempt to tie him in to the medical theme; if so, it doesn’t work. Graney is so furiously creative, that I can’t believe he can’t come up with a more interesting way to tie this character into the “sickness” theme of the evening.
The most readily-remedied is the use of the chorus. It’s underdeveloped. And, indeed, a major choral function – commenting on the action to provide a break – isn’t performed by the chorus at all, but by the other characters. Graney decided – because he didn’t have enough balls in the air already, I suppose – to add a musical element to the proceedings. So every now and again, one or another character will break into a song from the great Bruce Springsteen album, The River. Some of the song choices are more apposite than others – “Point Blank” makes more sense than “Sherry Darling,” and some ironic choices, like “Two Hearts,” are ironic mostly because of the title; the song itself just feels a bit off. But the bigger problem is twofold. First, Springsteen works (when he works) by elevating ordinary people to mythic status. But these are stories of already mythic individuals. They don’t need to be elevated – they need us to connect to them. And I don’t feel like the Springsteen did that. But second, the songs should be sung by the chorus – and instead they’re sung by the other actors. I really don’t know what reason there could be for that – it’s not that the actors are great singers who he had to use for this purpose. The result is that the nurses fade into the background except when they have an actual role in dealing with a sick or wounded person (such as amputating Philoctetes’s foot). Which is a shame, because the conceit is great.
The most difficult problem with Graney’s creation is that the “lesson” that he draws from many of these plays doesn’t rise to the level of the extraordinary journeys that some of the characters go on. Creon, for example, loses everything he loves in an effort to live up to a role he never wanted. It’s an amazing, terrible journey and elicits and amazing performance. But there’s no “lesson” there about how he should have treated Antigone to avoid the tragic end – it’s a tragedy because there was genuinely no way out. Sophoclean tragedy in particular in grounded in an irreconcilable conflict of ultimate values. I’m not sure, based on some of what Graney has the characters say when they are telling us what they’ve learned (his Herakles is particularly notable for this) that Graney believes that such irreconcilable conflicts really exist. If we were better people, he seems to be saying, less afflicted with our peculiar sicknesses, we might avoid tragedy. That’s ultimately a feel-good message, and not the strongest approach to tragedy. It’s notable that the last two plays of the evening, Elektra and Antigone, are least-afflicted with this interpretation, and are also two of the strongest overall.
That last is more than a quibble. But it’s a reason to see the play, a reason to argue with it, not to object to it. This particular set of sicknesses is one I really hope to see spread. (Maybe even to New York?) In the meantime, if you’re in Chicago, you’ve got two more weeks. Catch it while you can.