SEVEN PLAYS BY SOPHOCLES ARE ALL THAT REMAIN AND THE BATS PERFORM THEM ALL IN A BLOOD DRENCHED FIVE-HOUR SPECTACLE WITH DINNER AND DESSERT THROWN IN FOR GOOD MEASURE
BY HENRY EDWARDS
For those who missed it during its critically acclaimed, sold-out, twice-extended seven-week winter engagenent and for those who crave a repeat dose of shamelessly epic theatre, “These Seven Sicknesses” has returned to Tribeca’s Flea Theater for 23 performances through July 1.
Sophocles wrote more than 120 plays during an exceptionally long and productive lifetime; yet a mere seven have suvived the passage of time, namely “Oedipus,” “In Trachis,” “Philoktetes,” “Oedipus at Colonus,” “Ajax,” “Elektra” and “Antigone."
Whether it's inspiration or madness or an ebulliant combination of both, Sean Graney has adopted the septet of survivors into a nearly five-hour-long performance event with dinner and dessert served by the cast thrown in for good measure.
And that cast is something to behold!
The members of Off-Off-Broadway's Bats company are young, talented, fearless beyond all measure and terrific to look at.
In "These Seven Sicknesses," 38 of the best Bats have been let loose to breathe pungent life into these horrific, poetic, tragic pre-Christian tales.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar is the ringmaster of the event, expertly pouring the larger-than-life spectacle into the Bats's exceedingly intimate 74-seat theater.
Iskander's work is witty, ingenious and passionate, deservedly earning him a 2012 Best Director Drama Desk nomination for his efforts. (The director might have won had he not been competing against Mike Nichols who just happens to be 80 years old; Iskandar is a baby-faced, skirt wearing 30).
Playwright Graney divides the plays into three sections, “Honor Lost,” “Honor Found” and “Honor Abandoned.” It's a sketchy organizational principle. Overall, however, transforming the tragedies into a single, lengthy text succeeds in shining a light on two theoretical plot lines, the curse upon the house of Oedipus and his descendents, and the Trojan War and its devestating impact on the Greek soldiers and their families.
Along the way, an entire panoply of well known Greek mythological figures—Orestes, Antigone, Creon, Jocasta, Odysseus, Ajax, Elektra, to name a few—puts in an appearance with some totally reconfigured in contemporary terms. In fact the younger they are, the more 21st-century they are. For example, Betsy Lippitt’s brilliantly acted Elektra is an angst ridden punk goddess, and Erik Olson is equally terrific as her incestuously inclined, blonder-than-blond, horny twink of a brother Orestes.
"These Seven Illnesses" is set in a really creepy and disgusting hospital ward whose walls are stained with fresh supplies of blood. Julia Noulin-Merat created the cringe inducing space, and audience members sit in two rows on either side of the so-called "environment."
Iskander renders the entire endeavor in a change-on-a-dime, “downtown,” “post-modern,” classical-tragedy- meets-the-slasher-movie variety of styles.
Sophocles’s tragedies placed the emphasis on the nature of man, his problems, and his struggles, holding the view that that pain and suffering result when an individual defies the dictates of divine will or political authority or refuses to yield to destiny and circumstance, insisting instead to obey some inner compulsion.
There are occasional bad jokes, but the groaners are few and far between, and even at its most colloquial, Foley's adaptation conjures Sophocles’s original intent, making sure to remind us from a contemporary point of view that man—then and now—has always been plagued by "sickness." In seconds, the show becomes agonizingly painful, revealing age old truths in startlingly dramatic terms.
Fight Director Michael Wieser stages the most astonishing, brutal, stylized, physically wearing battle scene in memory. Grant Harrison is a titanic Ajax, riddled with delusions as he slaughters a flock of sheep he believes to be his enemies.
Unlike the chorus in the conventional staging of a Greek tragedy, the connective tissue is supplied by a guitar wielding orderly (Will Turner) and a zesty, riotously entertaining chorus of hospital nurses (Kelechi Ezie, Lisa Wipperling, Emily Brown, Bonnie Milligan, Lauren Hayes, Whitney Conkling), who seemingly have a tune on hand for every gruesome occasion.
The nurses sing (including a stirring rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird"), they dance and are particularly hilarious on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor while singing the blues. On occasion, they also give a great amputation.
Upon arrival, during intermissions, and after the show, the Bats also play the roles of hosts, and they are remarkably charming and personable. This approach, paying tribute to the age old communal tradition of the theatrical experience. Their efforts transform the entire event into the happiest of social occasions.
During intermission, the actors also admitted they liked being mentioned in the reviews. Doing justice to everyone is an almost impossible task, but for the record here are a few mentions with apologies to those who have been left out:
Seth Moore (Philoktetes): unbelievably powerful as he delineates a series of emotional changes and a master of doing the impossible which involves acting (spectacularly) with a crutch;
Jeff Ronan (Oedipus); heartbreaking and real and a master of aging not all that gracefully;
Katherine Folk-Sullivan (Antigone): resolutely passionate and you should see her using a power drill while dressed in a dull-length wedding gown;
Holly Chou (Blind Seer); part skin head; part holy person and wonderfully spooky as both;
Yoni Ben-Yehuda (Polyneices): bursting with likeability and sincerity and adorned with the most spiritual tattoos to adorn a young actor;
Olivia Stoker (Chrysothemis): the ultimate Valley Girl sister;
Tommy Crawford (Carrier): a very cool actor playing a very cool messenger;
Stephen Stout (Creon): turns up in three of the seven plays, growing more and more swarmy; this is delicious, wittily contemporary work.
The entire company gathers to sing the finale, and it's a thrilling site to see all of the Bats in one place at one time.
Downtown theatre used to be this brazen, brave and creative, and Jim Simpson's Bats reminds us that what once was can still be.
“These Seven Sicknesses” at the Flea Theater continues through July1 (theflea.org).