The instant ovation that greets the final curtain of “Tantalus” is that rarity — a hard-earned and much deserved one. It’s both a tribute to the creators of this exceptional theatrical event, which is making its world premiere at the Denver Center Theater Co. in a $7 million co-production with the U.K.’s Royal Shakespeare Co., and a celebration by an audience that has willingly embraced the challenges of its daunting 10-hour, two-day scope.
Dedicated theater audiences in the U.S. and London, where the production travels in January, will find that the rewards of “Tantalus” are many. It may not achieve the landmark status of prior epics like Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata,” “The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” or “Angels in America,” but as with those productions, its scale and scope lend it an authentic theatrical majesty that befits its subject: the Trojan War, the legendary 10-year conflict that inspired some of Western literature’s earliest masterpieces.
Despite some flaws of conception and execution, the production ultimately lives up to expectations set by its high aspirations and massive length. Tracing, perhaps for the first time onstage, the course of the war’s causes, climax and aftermath, it lends a new, cumulative power to myths more often encountered in piecemeal form. The stories may be familiar, but they are woven here into a tapestry that has a fresh theatrical shape and a grandeur all its own.
In conceiving the 10-play cycle from which Peter Hall’s production is “adapted” (an odd bit of wording that indicates some conflict between John Barton and Hall over the staging during the production’s six-month preparation in Denver), Barton has drawn on all sorts of material pertaining to the events surrounding the Trojan War. These would include Homer’s “Iliad,” some of the extant Greek tragedies and fragments from lost ones, and descriptions of another lost work called the “Epic Cycle” that covered the same territory. “Tantalus” is, in fact, a latter-day attempt to re-create this lost work, and is the fruit of some 20 years’ of research and writing on the part of Barton.
The first of the production’s nine segments — they’re all roughly an hour long and are divided by brief intermissions — is easily the most taxing. It introduces Barton’s mildly dubious framing device, which finds a chorus of contemporary, bikini-clad young women idling on a beach when they are approached by a tattered gentleman selling Greek trinkets — gimcrack statuettes of Zeus, Agamemnon, Iphigenia, Clytemnestra. Encouraged by their wide-eyed curiosity and sass (written and played with discouraging stiffness), he begins recounting the web of divine and human interaction that led to a conflict that devastated a culture but left in its wake stories that have resonated for more than 2,000 years.
The names fly by at a fast clip, and we see clearly enough why Barton felt it necessary to supply a stage stand-in for the audience, though the device never loses its faintly pandering tone (we’re in essence receiving an introductory lecture secondhand). And yet, paradoxically and like some of the play’s other flaws, this device later adds to the dramatic potency of the production, when the chorus is suddenly absorbed into the story, donning masks to become a troupe of Trojan women — and thus eventually violently abused prisoners of war. It’s a chilling moment. There is no such thing as an observer, we are made to reflect; we are all the eternal victims of crimes both age-old and headline fresh.
The use of masks is likewise an initially off-putting device that ultimately proves to be an asset. Aside from the contemporary chorus and the storyteller (played with marvelous, understated comic panache by David Ryall), all the actors wear full masks that eerily smooth out their facial distinctions and put them at a remove from audiences used to finding much of a play’s meaning in actors’ expressions.
Masks were a convention of classical Greek theater, but Barton is not writing a true-to-form Greek tragedy (even if each of the plays essentially does observe the classical unities). So why the masks? Perhaps simply — and effectively — to emphasize the unique nature of the undertaking, to set “Tantalus” apart from the common run of theater. The masks also reinforce the idea that while they suffer and scheme (and speak) as we do, the characters in “Tantalus” are archetypes: not mere people, but creatures who partake of a little of the gods’ grandeur — perhaps because, unlike most of us, they believe themselves to be under the gods’ daily judgment, and accordingly wrestle with the moral implications of every act. (Practically speaking, the masks are also a budget stretcher, making it possible for a single actor to play several roles without causing unnecessary confusion in a show that boasts a fair amount of unavoidable confusion.)
The masks even help lend a useful, if superficial, unity to the uneven acting ensemble. There are some great performances here, but also some inadequate ones. Most happily, in Greg Hicks, an English actor who often has collaborated with Hall, the production has a powerful performer at its center. Hicks plays Agamemnon, the Greek leader who led the united effort against Troy — and later became entangled in that sanguinary family squabble so memorably depicted in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” (merely described in passing here). Hicks also play’s Agamemnon’s Trojan equivalent, the king Priam, as well as Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. The abduction of Menelaus’ wife, Helen, by the Trojan Paris is the spark that ignites the conflagration, although Menelaus and Helen play only a small part in the saga.
To these roles, Hicks brings a voice of great sonorous beauty and, more importantly, sensitivity to Barton’s literary style. In his dialogue, Barton is striving for a delicate mixture of the natural and the supernatural. He uses contemporary vocabulary, phrasing and even some slang, but the dialogue has a clarified, heightened rhetorical sound inspired by classical verse tragedies. Hicks, more than any other performer onstage, masters the peculiar demands of this amalgam, and makes it sound natural and yet just a little otherworldly, as it should.
Hicks is himself blessed, in Agamemnon, with a character who has clearly inspired Barton’s most eloquent affection. As drawn by the playwright over the course of several of the cycle’s best plays, Agamemnon becomes the most richly conceived character, the one whose thoughts and actions exemplify many of the cycle’s most compelling themes.
He is a forceful leader, but one whose heroism is constantly colored by doubts and moral qualms; he recognizes the honor of waging a just war, but is aware that justice is slippery and subjective. And although he’s putatively in charge, Agamemnon is revealed time and again to be powerless to shape or stop events that fate — or is it merely the cumulative effect of myriad human actions? — has ordained. He is haunted by the acts that others celebrate him for, and somehow knows he will pay for them. The moment when his war prize Cassandra reveals to him his terrible future, and together they remove their masks and unite in a quiet ecstasy of oblivion, is perhaps the most moving in the whole cycle.
Barton finds other intriguing new angles on these classic tales, even as their familiar outlines retain their power to move us. For example, Agamemnon’s nobility is vividly contrasted with the character of the great warrior Odysseus, whose depiction here as a wily, pragmatic and at times brutal negotiator is one of the most surprising aspects of the cycle. Alan Dobie, another British member of the mixed U.S.-Anglo troupe, is excellent in the role.
There are also fine contributions from Alley Theater veteran Annalee Jefferies as a harsh Clytemnestra and a stoic Andromache, Ann Mitchell as a violently vengeful Hecuba and Alyssa Bresnahan as an agonized Cassandra.
Longueurs there certainly are over 10 hours of stage time: One of the less exciting plays consists almost entirely of Priam shilly-shallying about whether or not to let that wooden horse into the city walls. (We all know he’s going to screw up, rendering his indecision particularly tedious.) And Barton hits more than a few clunky notes: mixing in snarky humor with his characters’ rarefied musings on the necessity of revenge and other philosophical questions is a bit jarring.
The direction, credited both to Hall and his son Edward, is better at overall pacing and staging than creating a cohesive ensemble or powerful moment-to-moment drama. Why, to take just one example, is Mia Yoo allowed to portray Hermione as a nasal ditz?
Perhaps most detrimental to the production’s overall impact is the unimpressive set and costume design by Dionysis Fotopoulos. (The program jokes that he was selected for his resemblance to Zeus, and you half-wonder if they weren’t kidding.) Costumes are an incoherent mishmash of periods and styles united only by their general unattractiveness. Priam, most strangely, is a Nosferatu-like creature from a “Star Trek” picture — on stilts yet. The set designs are better — the Trojan Horse, at least, is ingeniously depicted — but lacking in color and the theatrical flair that we expect to attend the disporting of such legendary figures. The black glass panels that form the backdrop look like the side of a generic city skyscraper.
But “Tantalus” adds up to more than the sum of its parts. For those not familiar with less-celebrated figures from Greek mythology, Tantalus, who does not appear as a character in the cycle, was a founder of the house of Atreus who aroused the ire of the gods by stealing some of the nectar that gave them their divinity. His punishment was to spend eternity trapped underneath a massive rock that might crush him at any moment, with a tantalizing pile of fruit forever out of reach.
At times, the production itself must have seemed like that massive rock: an undertaking of such a monumental nature that it seemed destined to land with a big thud. Happily it hasn’t. Human beings are compared to pebbles on a beach in “Tantalus,” but it’s not the pettiness of human behavior that you take away from the production, but the beauty of human endurance. Bloodshed and treachery are everywhere in “Tantalus,” as they are everywhere today, but the spark of life — the savor of the fruit– is eternal, as is the impulse to examine and ennoble it through art.