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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

Photo by Evan Hanover.

Consider for a moment the single most impressive ingredient one can add to food or drink, or really anything for that matter. It is readily available, though seemingly scarce, and most often wasted.

We'll play the sphinx no longer and tell you it is the ingredient of time. It suffuses products with nuance and richness otherwise absent from that made in haste, resulting in tender, smoky briskets and deep, complex scotches. Or the reward is more valuable for the time taken to attain it, offering release as warring patience and hunger are reconciled. That first bite of Hot Doug's or Kuma's is made sweeter by the waiting.

In art, time adds value and gives opportunity for reflection. Temporal remove has helped even our initial reactionary responses to practically every major epochal shift in the arts. Taking time to sit with a work and one's thoughts can greatly broaden the experience of the piece. The brain becomes flush with considerations of time and place, of semiotic interpretation versus emotional reaction.

Still, as mere mortals, we humans have our limits. Research shows that the average museum patron spends only 27.2 seconds observing a painting. Television producers show new angles every seven seconds to entertain wandering eyes. The average reader online doesn't make it to this line, let alone past it (If you've read this far and just want the final verdict, you may skip ahead now).

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks.

That a theatrical event might be half a day in length is not entirely unheard of, though they are often split up over two evenings or more. Graney's choice seems predicated on having the passage of time act as an invisible performer in the show. Surely the audience cannot escape the feelings and effects of it throughout the day. Hereby the show appears an interpolation of John Cage's 4'33" where all the noise comes from without and echoes within. For roughly 160 times longer.

What proceeds is a review befitting such a show: lengthy, with considerable levity, and given to parabolic tonal shifts. Your humble critics choose to not simply review the show, but to vivisect it.

10:30am: Breakfasts at Filter Cafe
Mike: Breakfast Wrap, with coffee, black.
Ben: Steak and Eggs with an Americano.

Polite conversation turns swiftly to concern over wardrobe choices; one should indeed be comfortable when spending such time in the theater, but perhaps bare legs or arms will be by chill affected, thus changing the experience? Food and drink are also to be considered before charging forward. We aim to be well-fed, but not too stuffed; caffeinated, but not overly. As an opera veteran, Ben is armed with an assortment of candies for providing some momentary pep. As a rube, Mike is wearing shorts.

Many of these fears are assuaged as soon as one sets foot into the Den Theater's newly-opened space in Wicker Park. Trays of free Mediterranean snacks wait near the exits. A sign at the bar announces a bottomless cup of coffee for two dollars, which feels like a necessary companion with the day ahead to be measured not in hours but in seconds and thirds of caffeinated pours.

11:03am: Sean Graney introduces the show with a gregariousness verging on nervousness. It's clear this is the culmination of several years of work.
The show opens on Prometheus, bound.
Heracles is wearing cargo shorts.
Mike breathes a sigh of relief.

The show gets off to a rollicking start providing ample inertia for a cautiously optimistic, near-capacity audience. In adapting the work Graney has made it more akin to the experience of attending the theater in ancient Greece. In part a feast, in part a spectacle. The language is both beautiful and base, filled with jokes and portentous omens, rife with lyrical meditations and maniacal tirades. While the voice is modernized for this retelling, the core meaning and classic utterances of each piece remain intact.

12:15am: Mike is pretty sure he saw some of these cast members on Tinder
12:18am: Ben finishes his first coffee.
Eurystheus: "A great weapon that so few use: Patience."
Philoctetes: "Right now the world is as bright with injustice as when it sprang forth from chaos"

Graney has clearly poured a watchmaker's patience and skill into the careful crafting of this work, cleverly aligning the 32 plays into a coherent whole. The framing device for this follows the trajectories of a re-imagined Hesperides, the mythical Seven Sisters, as they are cursed by Eurystheus (the Necromancer!) to die in order from oldest to youngest. The sisters, in this telling, are now made up of a collection of the most important female characters in the tragedies, from Glauce, who stole Jason from Medea; to Creusa, unwitting mother to Ion; Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon; even Helen, the beauty for whom the Trojan war is waged.

It is partly out of necessity that the changes are made to the extant plays, using the seven sisters as the thread to bind his tapestry together. It is an exercise of poetic license which is educational and engaging, even for those with the most threadbare understanding of the Greek canon. Yet it is more than that. The telling of these tales was traditionally done from memory, and changes made by a single teller would become canon within only a few spins of the yarn. So in altering them, they are changed, in the experience of the audience and perhaps in future retellings.

It also becomes ever apparent that this is not a set of disparate tales collected out of requirement, but a complete work; The story of an entire generation, of its progress and failures. The show begins in a time of chthonic monsters, of minotaurs, giant eagles, cyclopes, but we know that it cannot last. Soon the heroes become the monsters themselves, first through deception or magic, but later for much more nebulous reasons. For power, then for love, then last for revenge. Revenge only begets further revenge, we see, and if one escapes reprisal, surely madness are the only spoils to be had.

12:20pm: First break: second round of coffees filled, trail mix procured.
Mike sends a text to a girl he went on a Tinder date with on Wednesday: "At that 12-hour play I told you about. How's your weekend going?"
12:46pm: Mouse, being beaten by her father Herakles lost an arm, which ended up in the lap of a man who resembles Mike Nussbaum.
He is playing with the prop in a thoroughly undignified way.
Probably not Mike Nussbaum.

Medea: "The only thing guaranteed in life is pain"
"Love is the ever-stinging wasp that gives no honey."
Spirits are high.

It cannot escape notice that this is a game cast, brimming with enthusiasm, verve, and talent. Each player is tasked with numerous roles, and it is to their credit that each character receives a vivid portrayal, no matter how small. The ensemble is quite remarkable, such that to praise any performer over another seems misguided; they are bright lights all, even when struggling at times under the weight of the massive undertaking.

Additionally, with its unerring positivity and energy, the Chorus, aka "Odd Jobs," became a crowd favorite as the show progressed. Like those kind souls who hand out ice cold water and bananas alongside a marathon route, they both mark the passage of time and keep morale high with words of encouragement.

1:33pm: There is definitely a Wilhelm Scream.
Deianira to Heracles: "I'm sorry I melted all your skin with semen"
1:47pm: 30 minutes for lunch. Also, a big yawn from Ben.
Lunch is hummus, pitas, greek pastries. Mike and Ben decide to drink alcohol. Mike thinks a Bloody Mary seems appropriate. Ben nearly spills a bourbon over himself. We picture stewing in booze for the remaining eight hours.

The complete work is, in reality, anything but a tragedy though. This is because much of the carnage on stage is played to the groundlings, less to the effect of the heart. There are heads stomped on, throats slit, bodies ground in an abattoir, all with copious blood sprayed across the stage.

hypocrites all our tragic
Photo by Evan Hanover.

The script is filled to bursting with irreverent hilarity, and the comic timing and reactions of the actors are all top-notch. As with any adaptation, the sense of humor and language is distinctly modern, but one gets the sense that the core meaning of the works remains intact.

Audience members familiar with the house style of the Hypocrites, especially last year's sublime take on the comic operetta of Gilbert and Sullivan, will be quite accustomed to the levity on display. It is a blend of a deft sweetness and vaudevillian madcap antics, but more nuanced than that particular combination might sound.

2:25pm: "Is it better to be friendly, feared, or faithful?"
Pentheus, in drag, is bludgeoned to death with a stew pot.
3:30pm: Second bathroom break, more food, coffee #3 (or is it #4?)
3:40pm: We move to the northern end of the theater, gaining a higher vantage point.

The scenic design is serviceable, though one doesn't expect much given the multitudinous locations that the stage will play. It is through costumes and lighting that the world of Thebes, Athens, and Troy really come alive. Each of the nine acts is structured around a theme, and usually the costuming is an outward reflection of that construct. When, in Act 3, we see the power struggle in Thebes play out over the Braille that we recognize as Oedipus Rex, the costumes have switched from seemingly period appropriate to modern day dress, on business attire. This act is called Politics, and honoring that the characters all look like they are on the campaign trail. Christine Stulik, in pantsuit and wig as Jocasta, suggests a '92-era Hillary Clinton.

3:45pm: Mike notes a ramp leading up to the stage was probably not built for wheelchair accessibility, but rather for dragging bodies away.

Eteocles: "Have we come to play with words?"
Polynices: "No, brother, we have come to play with SWORDS."

Elsewhere the costume changes are used to emphasize the differences between characters played by the same actor. Maximilian Lapine, as Eurystheus (the Necromancer!), is cloaked in darkness, with a frightening bat-winged helm atop his head. When we see him a few acts later, as Polynices, he rides in on a pink toddler-sized bicycle wearing a jean jacket and tube socks, pounding Beta Maxx energy drinks and playing hacky-sack. It is both a delineation between the characters and, through counterpoint, a source of hilarity.

Beyond costuming, they are able to quickly distinguish one character from another partly through an emphasis on character quirks. On the page, descriptors assigned to personalities like "the gaunt" or "the brave," both make characters identifiable and provide a sense of who they are. On the stage, a catchphrase, a fur hat, or an obsession with tea makes for more memorable characters that are easier to track as they pass from one tale to the next.

4:50pm: One hour meal break.
Ben stashes some plates in his bag, "just in case."
4:55pm: Now the body relaxes, and fatigue rushes in to fill the void vacated by concentration; we drink PBR, further inviting drowsiness. Here begins the real test, if indeed a test this shall prove be.
Mike realizes his Wednesday Tinder date un-matched him on the app.
5:53pm: Coffee #4. The show is late coming back from dinner, we are informed it will now be 12 hours and 10 minutes long.
6pm: As the next act begins, we are now more than halfway through.

Coming back out of dinner we are treated to stage-bound smelling salts, of sorts, as the Battle of Troy begins with singing steel and impressive choreography. Strobe lights flicker and the action slows down, taking on the look of Zach Snyder film, with its lingering gaze on man-on-man brutality. It is a noisy affair that is used to stand in for 10 years of siege. Funny that something meant to showcase stagnation is one of the more electric set pieces of the day.

8:11pm: Intermission. It now feels like the show will be over too soon, like the waning hours of a vacation; the magic fades as tomorrow can be heard knocking. Not ready to leave this space.
"Information is like a venereal disease: wishing it does not spread cannot stop it from spreading."
Aegistis: "Agamemnon could overpower me, like I were a ferret with scoliosis!"
8:15pm: Orestes: "Mommy, do boys need tampons?"
9pm: Dessert break. Dear goodness me, they have peanut butter-filled pretzels. Ben procures a Taddy Porter to pair, Mike drinks a Guinness.
9:30pm: Upon taking back-row seats, Ben gets a neck cramp. Mike is shaking in his seat, having decided to skip the bathroom during the last break.

We are now firmly entrenched in the Oresteia, a trilogy of plays so suffused with murders and revenge killings that George R. R. Martin would likely find them wanton. Gone are the lighter times of Heracles, but then in looking back one cannot say that much else that preceded was entirely too light. But the madness into which Orestes and Electra descend begins to wear on. It is only natural that at some point the show would begin to chafe a bit, for even lying upon the softest pillow mattress in the world will eventually give rise to bed sores.

10pm: Final break.
Have broken code of journalistic ethics and accepted oranges from the director. In this new mathematics, hoarder instincts > integrity.
10:15pm: Final act begins.
"Our torment starts with other people -- but ends with ourselves."

In the end, after hours upon hours of careful plotting, there is a shift. The play stops at what is the ostensible conclusion of its stories, as Orestes returns to Troy to wrest his sweet cousin Hermione from Neoptolemus, but is rebuffed. She has moved on, having fallen in love with the son of Achilles, whom Orestes has already murdered out of misplaced devotion.

What follows breaks from the established style of the show, and feels more like a coda, a bald address from the playwright issued forth from the mouth of a character, in this case Orestes, the last survivor of this cycle. It concerns the nature of tragedies, and the ability to lessen the suffering of those around us through kindness. The entire cast are brought out in a Brechtian manner, and laid to rest, before joining the Odd-Jobs in a singing of the Stephen Foster standard "Hard Times Come Again No More."

The rapid unraveling, though for precise dramatic purpose, has a dizzying effect. But we are reminded of canny words spoken several hours earlier, saying of a 1,200-page book, "If you liked 1,150 pages, would it still be worthy of recommending it to friends?"

Indeed. This prodigious show is not simply a play, but an experience in time and space. Few works are able to accomplish as much in terms of both entertainment as well as introspection. It is not easily shaken. As a piece of theatrical art it has no match, at least as yet we've encountered. All Our Tragic is a sprawling, messy, at-times-brilliant show, much like the lives of those it portrays and would hope to honor. It is a singular achievement, one not likely to be repeated any time soon.

11:30pm: Mike launches Tinder during the walk back home.
"I love this time of day -- when the moon wraps us up in a warm glow... It's like the world becomes us and we become the world."


On paper, a 12-hour play spanning 32 Greek tragedies sounds like a heroic labor only to be attempted by fanatics and demigods, but the humor and humanity of All Our Tragic makes it an experience anyone can enjoy, even as dozens of bodies rise and fall on the stage.

The full 12-hour version of All Our Tragic plays Saturdays and Sundays at 11am for $75, or one part of four on Fridays (and Mondays starting Sept. 8) for $30, through Oct. 5, at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. You can buy tickets online or call (773) 525-5991.


You can contact Mike Ewing on Tinder and @miketewing, and Ben Cannon @NotBenCannon.

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