BY Hedy Weiss
One of the many surprising things about director Sean Graney’s “Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses” — his altogether fascinating and original interpretation of the surviving tragedies by the seminal force in ancient Greek theater (and most all of Western theater that followed) — is how often he and his actors make the audience laugh.
To be sure, much of the laughter in this epic production by The Hypocrites is blackly comic — an acknowledgment of the colossally demented mess human beings make of things, whether political or personal. It is laughter in the face of monumental violence, selfishness, lies, betrayals, egotism, envy, lost honor, an unending cycle of carnage and revenge, and a general madness, especially in wartime. It is the laughter of self-awareness and compulsion. It is the laughter that comes when the horrors just keep piling up, and the maniacal absurdity of it all seems unstoppable. And it is laughter (and attitude) that could not be more hip, contemporary or, as the title suggests, “sick.”
Graney’s intensely visceral adaptation, which runs about three hours and 40 minutes including a dinner break and intermissions, is bookended by Sophocles’ most familiar plays — beginning with “Oedipus the King” (that tale of a plague-ridden kingdom led by an incestuous royal family), and ending with both “Elektra” (set in the wake of the Trojan War, when the title character seeks revenge on her mother, Clytemnestra, who has murdered her adulterous husband, the general Agamemnon), and “Antigone” (which captures the very different personalities and fates of Oedipus’ grown daughters, Antigone and Ismene). In between, there are the tales of Dejanira, who murders her unfaithful husband, the heroic Herakles, and then commits suicide; the tale of Philoktetes, the Greek hero treated shabbily by the arrogant Odysseus; and the story of Ajax, the exceptional warrior who, in a distraught moment, savagely murders a flock of sheep, believing they are his enemies.
Graney’s cast of a dozen actors is exceptional as they bring impressively different physical and emotional colors to multiple roles and wail out Kevin O’Donnell’s ballads. Erin Barlow, Tien Doman and Lindsey Gave are stunning in all the female roles, with Jeff Trainor, Zeke Sulkes, Geoff Button, Walter Briggs, Robert McLean, Ryan Bourque and Maximillian Lapine as the embattled men. Sarah Jackson and Shannon Matesky nail every punchline as the traditional Greek chorus which here takes the form of two very sassy Red Cross nurses who matter-of-factly amputate limbs and swab the bloody stage floor of the hospital set designed by Tom Burch and Maria Defabo. That stage rises above Aegean-style turquoise and white tile banquette seating for the audience.
In his recent one-man show, “Long Story Short,” Colin Quinn quipped that “Greek theater was invented as a way to say bad things about people in front of their backs, instead of behind them.” He would certainly get a kick out of “Seven Sicknesses,” a production that also should be required viewing for every high school and university class about Greek theater. But of course Graney would be the last person to “require” anything.