By ERIK PIEPENBURG
Published: January 12, 2012
SEAN GRANEY knows it’s weird that his latest play is being produced.
“On paper it’s a horrible idea,” he said. “Why would anybody want to see seven Greek tragedies in one night?”
In the spirit of “Gatz” (7 hours) and “The Demons” (12 hours), Mr. Graney’s “These Seven Sicknesses,” which begins performances on Thursday at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa, is something of a marathon. Set in a modern hospital-like space, the work is an adaptation of the seven Sophocles plays that still exist in their entirety: “Oedipus Rex,” “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone” (known as the Theban plays); as well as “Ajax,” “Women of Trachis,” “Electra” and “Philoctetes.” With two meal breaks, one for dinner and one for dessert, the night will clock in at about five hours. Mr. Graney, 39, said the plays in their original forms could run as long as 12 hours back to back.
Adapting seven Sophocles tragedies — stuffed with sex, corruption and violence — would be a huge undertaking for most any playwright, but is bread-and-butter work for Mr. Graney, the former artistic director and founder of the Chicago theater company the Hypocrites, known for their modernized, condensed adaptations of classics. (Their current production is an 80-minute “Pirates of Penzance”; next up is an hourlong “Romeo and Juliet.”)
Mr. Graney said the plays work well together, with Sophocles having built in natural connections between characters and progressions in the storytelling.
“These are seven plays that tell two stories,” he said. “They’re thematically resonant. You’re watching this full evening with these different sets of characters that are connected, but there are very different stories going on.”
“These Seven Sicknesses” made a cross-country journey en route to Off Off Broadway. The play began to take shape in 2010 when Mr. Graney, who lives in Chicago, took it to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for a workshop. Through contacts at the festival, the director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar got the script and held a workshop in New York last year with his theater company, Exit, Pursued by a Bear. (The name comes from a stage direction in Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale.”) This fall Mr. Graney directed the work in Chicago for the Hypocrites, with dinner (falafel and rice) part of the ticket price; the show made it on to several critics’ Top 10 lists.
Mr. Iskandar is directing the production at the Flea, with an entirely new cast. Jim Simpson, the Flea’s founder and artistic director, said he agreed to produce “These Seven Sicknesses” in New York sight unseen, based on a rave from Sarah Wansley, the Flea’s company manager, who attended a New York workshop.
“Doing the entire oeuvre of Sophocles plays felt right in line with the work we’ve been doing,” he said. “I have great confidence in the piece.”
If Mr. Simpson is worried about the demands of producing a lengthy show with a cast of almost 40 — drawn from the 90 members of the Bats, the Flea’s resident acting company — he’s not showing it.
“We like large casts, and we like to do ambitious work in a small theater,” Mr. Simpson said. “When we get a chance to do that, it’s very attractive to us.”
The running time may have actually worked in the show’s favor.
“The marathon stuff is the best,” Mr. Simpson said. “With these longer pieces something funny happens. You get unmoored in a way, and reach areas of feeling that you cannot get in two hours.”
“These Seven Sicknesses” is the first show workshopped at Exit, Pursued by a Bear to receive a professional production in New York, a move helped in part by Mr. Graney’s enthusiasm for Mr. Iskandar’s vision.
“When I saw it I was blown away by it,” Mr. Graney said.
Over the past few months Mr. Graney and Mr. Iskandar have been working long distance to adjust the script for the New York production. A scene in which Antigone digs a grave, for example, has been cut because the Flea’s stage cannot accommodate it.
Mr. Graney said he made changes based on Mr. Iskandar’s workshops. “I trust directors,” Mr. Graney said. “They are in the room, and I can’t be there. When he says he has a need, and if it makes sense, I don’t have a problem with it.”
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is not only Mr. Iskandar’s theater company, but also the name of his live-work loft, where he and his roommates regularly hold salons with a large roster of New York’s young theater artists. The 4,000-square foot space on West 45th Street in Manhattan is a place where they can develop work, hold readings and workshops and, Mr. Iskandar said, “hang out productively.” Food and beverages, mostly of the alcoholic kind, are paid for with donations from visitors “in the spirit of pot luck,” he said.
Mr. Iskandar hopes to recreate his loft’s vibe at the Flea. Macao Trading Company, a TriBeCa restaurant, will cater the show’s gluten-free, Asian-fusion, vegan meal, which is included in the $40 ticket price and which will change each week of the show’s run. Billy’s Bakery will provide dessert. The cast will double as servers.
“But totally out of character,” Mr. Iskandar said. “No one will be seated next to a bloodied Oedipus.”
Born in Indonesia to Chinese parents, Mr. Iskandar, 30, went to boarding school in Britain and college in the United States. Crossing so many cultural borders has left him with what he calls a “permanent sense of dislocation.” It’s perhaps one reason he’s so determined to open his doors to hungry actors.
“At boarding school I was constantly surrounded by communal living, and I took great comfort in that,” he said. “When in quiet moments I would start feeling terribly homesick, there was something comforting about casual social company around you.”
Mr. Graney is also a fan of a communal theatergoing experience.
“It’s exciting to me that you really have to put an investment of your time into it,” he said. “You have to make it an event. You have to set aside a few hours in the same room. We don’t get to do that often anymore.”
For audiences unaccustomed to eating dinner with strangers, let along spending five hours with Sophocles, Mr. Iskandar is reassuring.
“There’s probably three-and-a-half hours of play,” he said. “Everything else is break time. People should not be afraid.”