These Seven Sicknesses
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
January 28, 2012
There’s a lot of talk in the theater community about the supposedly growing short attention span of American audiences: “Do we cater to it or do we ignore it?” Bizarrely (and happily), the Flea seems to have found a way to do both with their production of Sean Graney’s These Seven Sicknesses. At 4 ½ hours, this adaptation of all seven surviving plays of Sophocles is theater at its best—ambitious, epic, fun, engaging, beautiful, and executed with skillful precision. It is an Event, and that capital “E” isn’t a typo.
Whatever trepidation you might feel about a performance of that length—and I admittedly always feel some trepidation, especially when Greek drama is involved—dissipates upon entering. The audience passes through the kind of plastic curtains you’d find at the entrance to a meat locker (appropriate!) into what looks very little like a theater. Set designer Julia Noulin-Merat has masterfully transformed the Flea’s space into something that simultaneously resembles a medieval jousting lane, a madhouse, and a morgue. The play’s action is staged predominantly along a narrow runway sandwiched between two facing rows of jury-box-like sections that house the audience. White wood and ceramic tile, stark against the teal walls, betray stains of splattered blood, foreshadowing the violence we know is coming. Actors—all members of the Flea’s resident non-Equity company—flit about, freely welcoming and chatting with audience members. As is explained in a brief curtain speech, their roles are not simply those of performers but of hosts. This is a risk that could easily prove off-putting and awkward, but the Bats are such excellent hosts—genuine and warm—that it only adds to the fun.
The show’s main treat—beyond the delicious dinner from Macao Trading Co. and dessert from Billy’s Bakery served over two intermissions—is the opportunity Graney and deft director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar afford us of viewing each of these seven plays in the context of the others. While Graney has expeditiously adapted them by modernizing much of the language and speeding their plots along, he is faithful to their cores. Divided among three acts (Honor Lost, Honor Found, and Honor Abandoned), the plays follow two narrative threads. One, which Graney calls Of Theban Rule, follows the fate of Oedipus and his family in Oedipus, In Colonus, and Antigone. The other, grouped as The Golden Bow, is wider in scope, encompassing heroes of the Trojan War and the cursed House of Atreus in In Trachis, Philoktetes, Ajax, and Elektra. In each thread, characters move from one play to the next, creating a sense that we are witnessing one, large, terribly unlucky and misguided family trying to navigate their brutal world…with little success. The plays are craftily and beautifully unified by a chorus of nurses, who gently tend to the characters’ many wounds and (accompanied on various instruments by the sole male orderly, the talented Will Turner) ease their suffering with harmonized versions of songs that range from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s "Find the Cost of Freedom" to Sixpence None The Richer’s "Kiss Me." Also moving between threads are harbingers of doom in the form of the Carrier (given the air of the plays’ sweet, soulful conscience by the excellent Tommy Crawford) and the Blind Seer (baldly attacked—literally—by the brave Holly Chou). News travels fast in this world, and it never seems to be good.
These Seven Sicknesses offers up another theatrical rarity—an enormous company. In an artistic landscape that seems filled with one 3- to 5-character, 90-minute, intermissionless drama after another, it is such a pleasure to experience something so broad in scope as offered by these 38 passionate young actors, especially in such an intimate setting. It is true that, at times, their youth gets in the way of believability (I cringed every time someone was referred to as “old man”), lending the night a very slight air of college theater production. But that’s a quibble because there are some straight-up solid, professional-quality, standout performances happening here. Seth Moore is viscerally brutal—and brutally funny—as Philoktetes, especially in the play that bears his name. His is one of the fortunate characters given a clear emotional journey, and Moore gives that journey full flesh (again, sometimes literally). His long scene with Achilles’s Neoptolemus (an earnest, true-hearted Alex Herrald) is one of the night’s best. If you, like me, were unfamiliar with Philoktetes going in, you won’t soon forget him coming out. Also hard to forget is Kate Michaud’s Dejanira, the spurned wife of Herakles. Although given one of the evening’s smaller roles (but this is a show that celebrates small roles!), Michaud lends Dejanira a nuanced complexity that is the perfect counterpoint to her rival Iole, played with appropriate vacuity by Liz Tancredi. While he doesn’t appear on stage, the intricate work of fight director Michael Wieser is felt throughout, especially during one expertly choreographed battle of one vs. (was it ten, eleven, twelve?). The ground beneath you shakes—I kid not. Finally, Betsy Lippitt’s fierce, shock-headed Elektra and Katherine Folk-Sullivan’s subdued Antigone are opposing studies in filial allegiance. The alternating rage, joy, and grief that Lippitt keeps on a constant simmer give Elektra’s pursuit of revenge a charge befitting her name. Folk-Sullivan, on the other hand, smartly holds back. Hers is the mirror journey of Moore’s Philoktetes over her three plays, and she makes the most of it, carrying her connection—literal once again—and allegiance to her father through to the methodical stoicism with which she unflinchingly buries her brother. In fact, the show, and Folk-Sullivan’s performance, changed my mind about Antigone. By the time we arrive at her fateful stand against Creon, we fully understand how both of them arrived at that moment. And the conflict is not, as I had previously thought, over her fallen brother’s body. Rather, it is a conflict over the long-fallen body of Oedipus, her father.
And, to some degree, that seems to be the real sickness these characters suffer from. They carry their history with them like a disease. No matter how hard they try to rid themselves of it, it infects their past, present, and future. It infects us, demanding, even as we try to look forward and not back, that we view their warmongering, their jealousies, their friendships, their loves through the lens of our own. I can only hope that the sort of large-scale, pulsing, inventive theater on display at the Flea is infectious and that we see many more productions like it. Though, I do wonder—and fear—that what makes this show financially possible is the fact that the large cast is unpaid (the Bats actually work for the Flea in exchange for being part of the company). Hopefully, I’m wrong and theaters can find ways to produce shows of this magnitude while compensating all the blood that goes into it. And there is a lot of blood that went into this show. Pay a visit. Find out just how much.