By Chris Jones
“Make no little plans” long has been the mantra of this city, a common justification for our hubristic plans for the skyline or lakefront, often trumping fiscal prudence. But between 11 o’clock in the morning and 11 at night on Sunday, a stretch of theatrical time so voluminous as to permit nothing else in the day, a small and poor Chicago theater company took Daniel Burnham‘s words as narrative challenge, laying out, in one colossal fully-produced endeavor, all of the great Greek stories that nursed Western civilization, all the stories that begot all our other stories, all our attempts to wrestle civilization and democracy out of our incessant natural savagery.
Splayed out en masse — in an unforgiving storefront on gritty Milwaukee Avenue, for heaven’s sake — the 32 surviving Greek tragedies are a box set of triumphs and wounds, an inching forward in peace and a falling back on swords, a body of work built out of man’s ceaseless failure to overcome himself, as Nelson Algren, who knew for Milwaukee Avenue, famously said of Chicago.
“All Our Tragic,” the work of an adapter-director named Sean Graney and The Hypocrites, the inaptly named theater company he founded, is not perfect in every moment, and I’ll get to some of those details. But this is one of those only-in-Chicago endeavors wherein the details are merely details. “All Our Tragic” is, in totem, a watershed moment for off-Loop theater. By whatever alchemy, it serves the greatest collection of stories ever written — adds to them, modernizes them, makes them feel fresh, forces you to see them both strange and familiar. You know, serves them.
It’s one thing for a Robert Lepage or some puffy, grant-funded Euro company, or even a Chicago arts organization with a relatively ample infrastructure, to pull off something on this scale. But for a non-Equity theater company with a small staff and a reliance on two dozen young actors doing it mostly for love, this is a stunning achievement, not to be missed by anyone who sees this aspect of Chicago as crucial to the cultural ecosystem of the city. There has not been anything quite like this ever before, and, on Sunday, everything ran like clockwork.
There is well over nine of hours of theater here (the rest of the time is taken up by breaks for food and bathrooms) and, on Sunday, you could count the flubbed lines on the fingers of one hand. If there were technical snafus, virtually none were discernible.
Tom Burch’s set and Jared Moore’s lights are simple but effective. The design element foregrounded here is costume, and the work of Alison Siple — who has conceived everything from sheep suits to puffy dresses to armor to sweet attire forever soaked in blood — is really something.
The title of the project, “All Our Tragic,” is a pun on a soap opera, perhaps, and, for sure, a nod to the house style of self-reference and humor. Graney, who worked on this text during a year’s fellowship at Harvard University, has organized these plays roughly in chronological order of the occurrence of the mythical events therein (not their order of their writing) and also under such themes as “”Physic,” “Politics” and, as the plays are slowly taken over by the horrors of war and the growing pains of a democracy, “Patriotism.”
No explicit distinction is made between the jottings of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; this is a hyper-contemporary mashup. Nor is there the kind of heavy concept that Graney used (unnecessarily, I thought) in his “Seven Sicknesses,” a previous compilation of the Sophocles tragedies. There are many anachronisms — Walter Briggs’ Herakles wants nothing so much as to appear in the comic book he carries in his pocket and Geoff Button’s young Orestes carries around a bear he calls Aristophanes. There are pop-cultural references, too. And a style of self-explaining writing very much in tune with the age of Wikipedia. And there is a chorus of three charming women, played by Kate Carson-Groner, Erin Myers and Lauren Vogel, who sing, play and pull us through.
But as the day moves into night, it becomes clear that what at first feels like a whip-smart but cartoonish parody of the superheroes and necromancers beloved most by Aeschylus — the first few hours sent a few mythology geeks in my line of sight into ecstasy, but they were far from subtle — has morphed into something much more serious. This wave kicks in most powerfully during the segment based on Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” the returning title character superbly played by Briggs as a war-weary hero, haunted by his murder of his own daughter and torn apart by homesickness.
Greek tragedies were written to be performed in festivals; the parsing of individual 90-minute plays is fundamentally a modern conceit. When you see them all like this — and when and where else might you do that? — you see the longer stories, the generational pass-downs, the price paid by years spent at war. You feel the emergence of yet bigger themes, the growing pains of humanity writ large.
Much stems from the so-called Seven Sisters, the daughters of Atlas, whose stars still shine down on us from the Cosmos and whose members and import Graney amplifies for his own devices. Much else stems from the quest for the most powerful weapon in the world. Insecurity is ubiquitous. Love struggles. Peace is elusive.
One of the fascinating aspects of this project is that even those of us who are deeply interested in this stuff really only know about half these plays well, so you get a unique blend here of the familiar travails of, say, Helen or Medea with lesser known personages whose doings provided much of the oft-overlooked context for the best-known stories. You feel a fuller Athens, and you come to know its seemingly eternal war-partner, Thebes. But as the show goes on, Graney comes to rely more and more on a small but crucial group of empathetic individuals: Herakles into Agamemnon, Prometheus into Orestes, Iphigenia into Elektra. Finally, Orestes, the mother killer thrust into internal and external torment, ends up as the conscience of the piece.
Not every performance is underpinned by ample technique and there are stretches that feel general and non-specific. Sometimes it’s a matter of the comic impulse going a bit too far, sometimes a matter of insufficient vulnerability, especially among men, often just a lack of detail. In any project like this, a director is going to spend more time with some sections than others. So it feels here. You wait those spots out.
There are enough first-rate performances — Button as Orestes, Lindsey Gavel as Elektra, Dana Omar as a seething Goth Medea, Briggs’ self-loathing Agamemnon and Erin Barlow’s wholly first-rate Antigone — that you feel like you are in safe hands, at least in one sense of that term.
For Graney, who is perhaps yet more a writer than a director, this is a remarkable achievement for a man whose work I’ve watched for years and who always has taken and learned from any sting of failure and then doubled-down on the level of risk. He, and Chicago, now can reap those fruits.
The end of “All Our Tragic” is, as you might expect, very emotional, not least because audience and cast feel the sense of mutual accomplishment, the end of a shared marathon race. Some directors who take on stuff like this are cynics or nihilists. Some are elitists who fear accessibility morphing into the obvious. Still others are gifted aesthetes willing to sacrifice their first-born (so to speak) for a pretty picture or a wave of emotion.
But Graney, for good or ill, is a messy, goofy, scrappy optimist. The takeaway of his super-sized show is that our lives usually start out being filled with external tormentors— enemies who wish to skewer our Achilles’ heels or attack our homes and families or compete for whatever sliver of power we have gained for ourselves. And then, as we age, we end up more and more with ourselves. Our furies are internalized demons. For the record, ‘right there myself.
Well. As Graney and the Greeks combine to observe at great length here, everyone we compete against eventually dies, just as we do ourselves. Might as well be happy for a bit, then.