As far as legit goes, hip-hop’s driving rhythms and audacious rhyme schemes have been largely restricted to poetry slams and one-person shows. Now they triumph in the telling of “The Seven,” performer-educator Will Power’s wholly now re-creation of the Oedipus fable and aftermath in irresistible song, fly dance and slashing spoken word. Much reworked and polished since its 2006 debut at the New York Theater Workshop, the La Jolla production amply fulfills the myth’s twin demands: to provide a mirror into which we can see ourselves and tell an exciting story.
Off Broadway’s 2000 “Bomb-itty of Errors” hilariously incorporated rap into Shakespearean comedy, leaving open the question that Power’s new piece answers so conclusively: namely, the form’s applicability to a serious classic while avoiding the potential Scylla and Charybdis of triviality and pretentiousness. The librettist-lyricist’s contempo equivalents for the characters and events of Aeschylus’ “Seven Against Thebes” (the seven rebel armies assembled by one son of Oedipus to try to topple another) are potent, never self-conscious.
Take the disgraced old Rex himself, only spiritually present in Aeschylus but here the fire-breathing incarnation of evil as dazzlingly portrayed by Edwin Lee Gibson. Singing and swinging like James Brown and outfitted like Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite, Gibson’s Mack-Daddy Oedipus is a one-man retrospective of a bygone era, the precise role Oedipus plays when he passes on his house’s curse — here to doo-wop accompaniment — to the progeny that exiled him.
“May they still bring each other to they knees,” his chilling refrain wheedles like Ray Charles tripping, “And wallow in the same family blood/And die right there in the cold, cold mud.” Brotha against brotha theme becomes as resonant as the original — “I speak of a sin sown long-ago/O house of endless tears” — is now remote. (Sampled spoken-word Aeschylean excerpts, akin to bygone Caedmon recordings, provide both witty contrast and a sober reminder of story’s lineage.)
The old man’s periodic reappearances to whisper poison into his sons’ ears evokes the notion of sins of the father or tragic inevitability — a theme sure to strike a chord in a young minority population widely perceived as doomed and turning on itself. In the breaking of the bond between proud Eteocles (Benton Greene) and sensitive Polynices (Jamyl Dobson) –who vow to sidestep the curse by sharing power — can be seen the ferocious refusal to be “disrespected” heedless of the self-destructive outcome.
Greene’s Bantam rooster of an Eteocles ensures a sad Napoleonic end to his initially hopeful reign, bringing out the theme of power misapplied. Others will latch onto the theme of being true to oneself, as Polynices’ instinct to remain exiled in the forest with nymphlike lover Tydeus (Flaco Navaja) succumbs to resentment of his brother, physicalized as a sensual yoga session turning into calisthenics in preparation for battle.
One hopes that school groups will have plentiful opportunities to experience “The Seven,” for any English class would eagerly accept DJ Chinasa Ogbuagu’s passionate challenge to discuss and interpret the tale so as to “flip the record/Remix it/Turn a problem to an opportunity/Paint ugly till we see beauty.”
After expressing youthful repression but only fitful release in his Tony-winning choreography for “Spring Awakening,” Bill T. Jones is like a kid in a candy shop with the range of musical styles and movement possibilities offered here. Show’s frankly funky athleticism is tempered by Jones’ signature intelligence and economy, especially in the tireless quintet of Greek choristers morphing from the terrified citizens of Thebes to the “Funky Fates” and the seven attacking armies with effortless abandon.
So seamless are the parts of “The Seven” that it’s hard to see where Jones leaves off and helmer Jo Bonney takes over, but there’s enough credit to go around for the calibrated balance of whirlwind pacing, naked theatricality and storytelling clarity.
Similarly, there’s no attribution of tunes to Power or collaborators Will Hammond and Justin Ellington, but each moment in the pastiche of musical genres, rhythms and accompaniment sounds right, like an iPod programmed to jump from track to track with Fate acting as a flawless DJ.
Designer Richard Hoover’s ramp to steeply circling stairs offers its own brand of tension as cast precariously stomps, twirls and kung fu fights overhead. Main visual element is his floor-to-ceiling projection wall, filled by Robin Silvestri with dramatic images ranging from a simple, scary fluttering of curtains to indicate evil’s presence to a slow pan up the red-stained stone walls of Thebes that presages the attack.
“The Seven” stops short of introducing sister Antigone’s tragic efforts to see her brothers properly buried, though closing ominous note leaves no doubt that the curse, like the beat, goes on.