Tantalizing theater

In an unusual collaboration, two theater companies - one British, one American - bring the 10-1/2 hour 'Tantalus' to the stage.* *(One Greek dinner included.)

King Tantalus displeased the gods. His punishment was to spend all eternity in the underworld, bound to a glorious tree laden with fruit - around him, a cool, refreshing pool of water. But he could neither reach the fruit nor drink the water. The word "tantalize" comes from this myth. There are many variations of the story giving reasons for his punishment. In some versions, he was a friend to mankind like Prometheus who stole fire from the gods. King Agamemnon, a hero of the Trojan War, was one of Tantalus's descendants.

So it is only fitting that an extraordinary experiment - a new 10-play cycle about the Trojan War lasting 10-1/2 hours - be named "Tantalus" - both for the house of Tantalus and for the metaphorical meaning that name holds. The myths explored here cover every form of human behavior - personal, social, and political. The world premire of the epic opens at The Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex in Denver (Oct. 21 to Dec. 2), where the 10 plays can be seen in two-day shifts or in one day (with a Greek dinner included).

The cycle's director, Sir Peter Hall of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, says that people come to epic theater because it is an unusual, full-blown experience.

"You immerse yourself in it very completely. I think you also become friends, even by silent communication, with all the people sitting around you in the audience - you're going through something together...."

The stories begin with a contemporary group of young women enjoying themselves. A souvenir vendor appears, and begins to tell them the story of the Trojan War - much of which they already know. These young women become the Trojan women. And then the great figures of Homer's "Iliad" emerge to tell their tales.

The epic form, director Peter Hall says, enables the theater to tell grander, more complicated stories. The myths still speak to us, he says, because they are elemental.

"The idea of family loyalty, the idea of family feuds, the idea of revenge, of the horror of generation upon generation of families continuing their hatreds, of nations continuing their hatreds," says Mr. Hall, "however you may dress it up, it's still something we tussle with every day."

International in scale

"Tantalus" is part of a growing trend in epic theater, which includes "Angels in America," "The Cider House Rules," "The Kentucky Cycle," and Hall's own production of Shakespeare's history plays done as a single event at London's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) - later reproduced at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

But this project represents a rare collaboration between two prominent theater companies: The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC).

"Tantalus" is written in verse by distinguished British playwright John Barton and directed by Hall, artistic director of the RSC. Half of the principal players are British, half American. It took John Barton 15 years to write, and it has taken six months of rehearsal, rewrites, and an international design team to create sets and costumes at a cost of nearly $8 million to produce (nothing for a movie, but a fortune for a regional theater company).

"It's an international [production] in the sense that the directors and the writers are English, the designer is Greek, the composer is Irish, the lighting designer is Japanese," says Hall. "I deliberately did it as a kind of international mishmash of everybody I could think of that was really, really good."

But the credit goes to the DCTC, says Hall, who points out what an extraordinary "plant" was made available to the international team. Moreover it was the director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, of which the DCTC is a part, Donald Sewell, who rescued the work when it floundered at the RSC for want of funds.

"I think [the collaboration] is terribly unusual," says Hall, sitting in his office at the DCTC. "It's been such an enormous investment on Denver's part and such an act of trust. They've given over nearly a year of their creative life to us to come and do this." The collaboration may bode well for future productions.

And once it closes in Denver on Dec. 2, it will tour England, starting with the RSC. "I think there's some doors opening," Hall says. "The bringing together of the American acting tradition and the British acting tradition interests me keenly."

He adds that even the British and American Actors Equity unions swallowed their differences to allow this project to go forward. But even with all things going well, it was a Herculean task. "There is inside this huge sprawling text something very important and very alive. But how it was going to be designed, what it was going to look like, how we were going to speak it, I really had no idea. And I didn't want any idea because I think to research and investigate a piece of theater like this is a great luxury and - very healthy."

'Tantalus' unmasked

The choice of masks is not unheard of, but it is unusual these days. One British actor left the production early on because he did not want to wear a mask.

"A mask doesn't hide. It reveals," says Hall. "It reveals things about the inside of you and your psyche which some people find quite difficult to cope with and others find extraordinarily exciting. A lot of our work has been ... to take 10 American actresses who had never done mask work, and actually allow them to develop themselves through the mask.

"And the whole thing becomes a mythical piece of storytelling which uses masks, it uses music, it uses all the language of theater in an absolutely freewheeling way. And it ends as it began, with the girls on the beach saying, 'Did that happen?' "

Primarily, it's about a little war that lasted for 10 years, says Hall. No one can quite remember how everyone got into it and no one can think of a way of getting out of it with honor - like so many wars.

"But also, it's very funny. Anybody who finds politics entertaining, and anybody who finds politics exasperating will be entertained by 'Tantalus' because it's very perceptive about politics," he says.

World leaders can be the victim of the needs of their societies, and it's difficult to be a good human being and wield power, he says. Agamemnon is a tragic figure.

He explains, too, that the myths about hubris, in which a human being treads on the prerogatives of the gods, offer wisdom about contemporary scientific hubris.

"There is that sense of imminent disaster in the plays. Whether it's the atom bomb, whether it's the arrogance of science, whether it's the irresponsibility of science letting loose things out of the bottle that we don't know how to control - that's all in the plays. But it's in the plays in a metaphorical way.... 'Tantalus' is about Zeus deciding that men are now so proud and so bigheaded that they are trying to behave like gods before they have learned to behave as men."

But Hall makes clear that he is not interested in merely teaching a moral, but in revealing something of inherent importance to contemporary society.

"I hope you'll come out of it having been entertained and provoked, having laughed quite a lot, having been a bit shocked, certainly a bit disturbed," he says.

"But you will come out - thinking ... I hope, feeling a little more perceptive about the nature of our responsibilities to each other....

"It's the whole question of social responsibility. Do to others as you would be done by.... How can you in a society which says the main thing you've got to do is make money?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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