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All Over the Map

Thyestes in Chicago, Too Old for the Chorus in La Mirada, CA, and All the King's Men in Providence.

Lance Stuart Baker and Wandachristine in Thyestes
(© Michael Brosilow)
Lance Stuart Baker and Wandachristine in Thyestes
(© Michael Brosilow)
The story of Atreus feeding his brother Thyestes his own sons was a cornerstone of Greek drama. This atrocity had repercussions explored in numerous tragedies, affecting the fates of such well-known figures as Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. "All the Greek playwrights wrote a Thyestes play, but none of them survive," says Joanne Akalaitis. What does exist is a version of Thyestes by Roman playwright Seneca, which Akalaitis is now directing for Chicago's Court Theater, in a 1994 translation by Caryl Churchill.

"I think she's one of the world's greatest playwrights," says the director. "She has an uncanny knack for using language in an offbeat way, to talk about things like a 'sad spring,' when we usually talk about bubbling springs. It's quite difficult and formal language that Americans are not used to speaking or hearing."

Akalaitis' production takes some of its inspiration from the theater of Nero's Rome. "The Romans were used to going to the Coliseum and seeing people crucified or mauled by lions," she states. "They were used to public hideousness. This play is about a very gruesome event and the person who undertakes it. Atreus begins the play overtaken by a terrible lethargy. Thyestes, who is no saint, did steal his wife and throne. When Atreus finally figures out how to get even -- by making Thyestes eat his own children, with the added evil that he won't know it -- that's pretty awful. I did a lot of research on Rome and Roman theater. Nero was a corrupt and crazy tyrant, a delusional megalomaniac. Seneca was his former tutor, and I think is able to criticize him through this play."

The director is also quick to point out that the allure of extreme acts of violence is also to be found in our contemporary society. "All you have to do is look at the front page of the New York Times which is printing extremely beautiful pictures that are also awfully gruesome. Somehow, the Times is getting fascinated by the beauty of horrific events."

-- D.B.

********************

In its earlier incarnations, the musical revue Too Old for the Chorus was literally about show folk facing life after age 50. But for the new version of the show, which begins performances on September 28 at the La Mirada Theatre in La Mirada, California, writers Marie Cain, Mark Winkler, and Shelly Markham have expanded the characters' occupations and concerns.

"The title here is now primarily metaphoric instead of literal, although one of the characters is still a dancer," says director Joel Bishoff. "One of the things I most liked about the show is that it explores the lives of baby boomers in a different way than other shows. It focuses on their future. Instead of spending their afternoons at a three-martini lunch, they're hitting the gym. I think the audience can really identify with what these characters are going through."

Indeed, the 45-year-old Bishoff's connection to the material caused him to reconsider his vow to never direct another musical revue, after helming the international sensation I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. "What appealed to me from an artistic point of view is that not many revues have continuing characters; here, each actor essentially plays one character from beginning and end," says Bishoff. "They have an arc and development, but without a conventional plot."

Bishoff is also staging the show differently from many conventional revues. "I'm not using the sketch-blackout-sketch form; it's much more fluid," he says. "The show is set in a coffee bar for baby boomers and the actors rarely leave the stage. If it's not their number, they're just hanging out reading a newspaper or working on a computer. The band's on stage too and there's even a barista. Actually, he's a member of the crew and he doesn't say anything, but he can help with the scenery."

-- B.S.L.

********************

Joe Wilson, Jr. and ensemble in All the King's Men
(© Mark Turek)
Joe Wilson, Jr. and ensemble in All the King's Men
(© Mark Turek)
Twenty years ago, with the Iran-Contra affair taking over headlines and Reverend Jesse Jackson making his second bid for the White House, Brian McEleney, a young member of the acting company at Trinity Repertory in Providence, Rhode Island, was playing multiple roles in Adrian Hall's stage adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Today, with scandals galore stemming from the War in Iraq and an African-American candidate making a legitimate move towards the Presidency, McEleney decided the time was right to helm his own non-traditional production of the play.

The primary departure is that he has cast an African-American actor, Joe Wilson, Jr., as Louisiana politician Willie Stark. "Usually when you do non-traditional casting you just cast an African-American in a role that would ordinarily be played by a white person and just leave it there and it works," says McEleney. "But All the King's Men takes place in a time when race really does matter, and there are times in the play when people do use the 'n' word and so we can't just ignore it." So why take the chance in the first place? "I just thought he'd be perfect for the role, and that we can look at this story through a slightly different prism because we're talking about a politician who gave voice to the powerless."

According to McEleney, race matters a great deal in politics. "It matters in issues of poverty, class, distribution of wealth, and hurricanes and floods that destroy states," he says. "This play doesn't provide any answers or prescriptions and it's not propaganda in any way. But it is about politics in America in a profound sense and I hope it will get people thinking and talking. One of the things that the play says is that we get the leaders we deserve and that it's very, very, easy to be cynical about politics, but we also have to take responsibility for the people we elect."

-- M.M.


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