An epic in age of the sound bite

We need epic theater. The "total immersion" in a gripping if flawed "Tantalus" at the Denver Center Theatre Company, a collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the DCTC, proves how much we need it. "Tantalus" offers a fascinating and contemplative look at a distant past that still impinges on our present.

The 10 interrelated plays that comprise "Tantalus," the performance of which takes 10-1/2 hours viewed over either a one- or two-day period, cover events of the Trojan War and its aftermath. Masks hide the faces of the Greek characters as the myths begin unwinding. The cycle opens on a modern beach on the Aegean Sea, where 10 young ladies (who become the Trojan women in the fourth play) are sunning themselves. A souvenir vendor appears, an itinerant poet who draws them into the story of Zeus and his paramour Leda, whose child, Helen, became in Christopher Marlowe's terms "the face that launched a thousand ships...."

Playwright John Barton, whose obsession with the Greek myths took him on his own odyssey of some 10 years in writing "Tantalus," has drawn not just from the ancient Greek plays of Aeschylus and Euripedes, but from lesser-known myths - and, one suspects, perhaps some of his own making.

Written in iambic pentameter, his text can sometimes soar. Sometimes his humor switches gears to the colloquial. His heroes can be bigger than life at times, and then abruptly sink to the lowest ebb of human behavior: You wouldn't want to meet Achilles's son, Neoptolemus, in a dark alley. Drenched from his heels to his eyebrows in blood, he has the Trojan women humiliated, stripped, and branded as slaves. It is a stark moment that resonates with the modern horrors of Bosnia and dozens of other wars inflicted on helpless civilians. Neoptolemus has scarred himself forever: He will never be a hero.

The greatest of all the figures of the play, Agamemnon, is torn between his own noble humanity and the necessities of war. He tries to do some good, but is thwarted at every turn.

Since his death occurs offstage (and is inadequately explained), we only hear about it after the fact. We need to feel more keenly the tragedy of his loss. He is the one with whom we identify, the one we love. And his union with the doomed prophetess Cassandra, his war prize, is one of the most memorable points of the cycle. In a moment of extraordinary beauty, they each take off the other's mask - and the gesture is marital. It implies the profound trust achieved only in great marriages - a trust that cannot be broken by the vagaries of human experience.

British actor Greg Hicks, who plays Agamemnon, his brother Menelaus, and the Trojan King Priam, offers sufficient cause all by himself to see the plays. He moves with the exquisite precision of a dancer. As King Priam he is dressed in surreal garb and walks on stilts with incredible grace using a long cane in each hand, resembling an Asian puppet. The masks free him to take on various characters, and with each he holds the audience in his grasp, never upstaging the other actors, but riveting us to the story: Why did this war happen? Who is responsible? Could things have turned out differently?

A fine cast has been assembled - though no one else quite equals Hicks. And some odd notes here and there jar the majestic movement of the story in weird ways - Hecuba (Ann Mitchell) is too brassy at times, choosing to eschew the elegance that would convey her royal status. An hour might well have been trimmed. And we need more visuals in the telling of the gods' tales - if only to keep them all straight.

But caveats aside, the show is beautifully staged, the score by Mick Sands is subtly evocative, and the lighting design by Sumio Yoshii is stunning.

What comes through at the end of a day and night in the theater is a sense of the mystery, if not the meaning, of human experience.

These myths are still relevant, as Mr. Barton and director Sir Peter Hall make clear, because they reveal just how complicated are human motives, how noble the human spirit can be, and also how much suffering is man-made.

Pettiness, greed, and lust are the means by which men and women fall into evil actions. Some get lost in evil; others try to make amends. But each is responsible - even in war - for what he or she does and thinks.

Though "Tantalus" does not rise to the level of profound spiritual insights, its vision is humane and moral.

Through it, we enjoy an experience - unlike any other - of community with our fellow theatergoers. We have felt the magic of an audacious theatrical idea: the epic in the age of the sound bite.

'Tantalus' plays at the Denver Center Theatre Company through Dec. 2.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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