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THEATER REVIEW All Our Tragic
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2014-08-20

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Playwright: Sean Graney. At: The Hypocrites at The Den, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: www.the-hypocrites.com; $30 ( $75 for a four-part marathon ). Runs through: Oct. 5

The works of auteurist director Sean Graney divide me, and All Our Tragic is no different.

A prodigiously gifted storyteller, Graney dazzles with showmanship and pure theatricality. He inspires the best from actors, designers and musicians who have worked with him repeatedly with The Hypocrites ( the company he founded ) and elsewhere. I saw the four parts of All Our Tragic in a 12-hour marathon ( with meal breaks ) and, while tired by the end, I wasn't bored or disinterested for a nanosecond. Graney's mastery of mood, pace and physical space is extraordinary; for example, there's his astute rendering early on of Herakles ( Hercules ) as a superhero comic figure before introducing more serious and moving material; likewise thre's the lovely, apt use of live traditional and classical music.

But I disagree with Graney fundamentally at the conceptual level of his art. Inventive as they are, his productions always leave me feeling dumbed down because he obsessively changes the great classics to which he's drawn. Sometimes he literally rewrites them, and he always cuts them, eliminates characters and simplifies ideas. Does he feel it's the only way to make them accessible to modern audiences—or the only way to make them accessible to himself?

For All Our Tragic, he's mashed up the 32 surviving classical Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles who, collectively, wrote nearly 300 plays, nearly all based on pre-existing mythology. Several, such as Euripides' The Bacchae and Aeschylus' The Persians, receive scant attention while Medea, Oedipus the King, the Oresteia and others become the focus. The reason is that Graney fashions them as a continuous history of the cursed clans of Cadmus ( Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon, Antigone ) and Atreus ( Agamemnon, Menelaus, Orestes, Electra ) taking place over 75 years, although they weren't written that way.

To make them fit the family plan, Graney turns the key wives—Agave, Clytemnestra, Medea, Helen, Phaedra, etc.—into sisters so everyone is related by marriage, if not blood. The stories mesh, but it's emphatically untrue to classical mythology. Still, he's free to use and alter the same mythology as the great Greek authors, but it's a sham to claim he's presenting their plays when he's only combining their stories.

Greek audiences knew the mythological characters and their stories before they came to the theater, so the stories weren't what made the plays imperishable. The things that did—vivid poetry, deep debates on profound problems of ethics, morality, faith and the human condition, the Greek chorus to comment and explain for the audience, the context of the gods and Fate, and the individual style of each author—are precisely the elements Graney has tossed out.

I fervently wish Graney would apply his considerable talents to doing great classics as written, intending to illuminate the playwright's work rather than himself. His need to reconfigure and reduce suggests distrust of the original authors, or a low estimation of audience intelligence, or overweening ego. He needs to grow beyond grade-school versions of the classics, no matter how entertaining they may be.


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