When Aristotle immortalized the term hubris, he could well have been talking about Sean Graney, the experimental Chicago theater director who, this fall, decided to adapt and stage not one Sophoclean drama, but all seven at once.
In a Wicker Park basement. In three themed acts (“Honor Lost,” “Honor Found” and “Honor Abandoned”). With one company of actors. Using a soundtrack composed entirely of songs by Bruce Springsteen, taken from his album “The River” and performed live by the actors.
The setting for the whole shebang is a kind of warped hospital emergency room, with the swinging entry doors functioning as an equivalent to the famous central doors in the Theatre of Dionysus. And did I mention the chorus is represented by a pair of cynical nurses, who’ve seen it all and stitched up it all?
Let me first lay out my caveats: You will be perched on cushions and hard benches for several hours; these are abbreviated versions of these plays; most of the actors are not great singers; Graney struggles to evoke another of those crucial Aristotelian tragic concepts, known as magnitude. All in all, Graney usually takes a glancing blow rather than staring Sophocles right in the face. And I would say his natural inclination is more Euripidean than Sophoclean.
But, you know, “Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses” is the kind of work that can emerge only when a director has complete freedom from fitting the artistic mission of others or bringing in coin at the box-office. It is one heck of an achievement.
When you go to Greek drama — even at Apollonian-style theaters where they like to specialize in gravitas — you go for revelation. You want to encounter someone’s take on these great ancient plays and feel, all at once, their timeless power and their fresh resonance. Graney will, I guarantee, give you gobs of that. And it’s not easy to do. His overall sensibility here seems influenced by the late British provocateur Joe Orton (“What the Butler Saw”), who is not the guy who usually comes to mind when you think Sophocles, the most balanced and realistic of the three Greek tragedians whose work has survived. But Graney nonetheless makes his case that the violence, passion and dark comedy that inevitably flows when Greek tragedies are staged today can be fused to strikingly complex yet accessible ends. Why not stick all these characters in a hospital? They’re sick and desperate enough. And they love to talk about their blood lines, which makes Graney’s flowing tubes of red stuff all the more apropos.
And that’s not the only reason for hardy, drama-loving souls to toddle on down to the Chopin basement.
Sophocles was known for the power and strength of his women — indeed, he was the first playwright to be known for the power and strength of his woman — and this four-hour performance contains a trio of gripping, gutsy performances from three superb young actresses: Erin Barlow, Tien Doman and Lindsey Gavel. They split up the famous Sophocles roles between them and, throughout the entire duration of the event, they’re all on fire.
Barlow’s Jocasta is especially fascinating: any good production of “Oedipus” makes you wonder what Jocasta knows and when she found it out, and so it goes here. Similarly, Barlow’s Antigone is the kind of determined creature who would terrify any king, especially Zeke Sulkes’ hapless Creon. Doman’s Dejanira is similarly unstinting, and I found Gavel’s feral Elektra to be a fascinating blend of determination and misery. These are formidable performances and they power through this show. Both Sulkes (Creon and Odysseus) and Jeff Trainor (Oedipus and Agamemnon) seem continually terrified of a trio that packs more punch than the witches of “Macbeth” and the angels of Charlie combined. I suspect that was by design.
While “Oedipus,” “In Trachis,” “In Colonus,” “Philoktetes,” “Ajax,” “Elektra” and “Antigone” does not represent the sum total of the output of the famous Athenian, it does represent the sum total of that which survived the last 2,600 years more or less intact. You can thank the monasteries, and maybe the Irish, for hanging on to the manuscripts. Of those plays, a regular theatergoer can expect, in the course of a few years, to be offered “Oedipus,” “Antigone,” and “Electra.” Maybe, if you willing to travel to some festivals, an “In Colonus.” But outside the groves of Academe, the chance to see “In Trachis” or “Philoktetes” are rare indeed. Graney should try and publish his adaptations; the rakish “Seven Sicknesses” would be a boon to many colleges.