Jamyl Dobson and Benton Greene in The Seven

(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Jamyl Dobson and Benton Greene in The Seven
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Rare is the theater program that comes equipped with a glossary. Rarer still is the four page "Greek/Hip-hop glossary" that accompanies the program for Will Power's singular musical The Seven at New York Theatre Workshop.

Power's assumption, which I suspect is rather well-founded, is that those audience members who can instantly define Sophocles and Chiron may not be entirely familiar with Mack Daddy, Method Man, and Phat Farm, and vice versa. (I'm not entirely sure, though, why he included a definition of "metrosexual." Is there anyone in New York who hasn't heard that overused term?) The glossary is an omen of what to expect over the next two hours, as a spirited cast of 11 (plus the voice of Charles Turner) perform an entertaining and inventive marriage of hip-hop and Greek tragedy -- one in which most of these terms fly by so fast in Power's rhyming text, you might not even realize he's used them.

Last seen performing in the acclaimed solo show Flow, Power is working behind the scenes this time, having spent over four years creating this reworked version of the Aeschylus classic Seven Against Thebes. Loving siblings Eteocles (Benton Green) and Polynices (Jamyl Dobson), the sons of Oedipus (the excellent Edwin Lee Gibson), initially agree to alternate as rulers of their kingdom each year after the death of their father -- who has cursed them to be enemies. But they eventually give in to mistrust and ultimately kill each other over the throne, causing a bloody war that will plague generations to come.

For all its up-to-the-minute terms and modern dress, The Seven isn't a complete updating of Aescyhlus; the characters are still called by their Greek names, and the drama has not been reset in another land. As a result, Power's aim in creating the piece seems a bit muddy. Clearly, there's a 21st century story to be told about the perils of brother killing brother, but the moral could be brought out more strongly. Power has said that he's also fascinated with the idea that the sons of Oedipus cannot manage to escape their fate, but he doesn't go far enough in finding a current-day parallel. On some level, he may simply be encouraging young African-Americans to go back and read the Greeks, or even Shakespeare; or maybe he's urging Greek scholars to go out and buy Jay Z's latest album. Either way, his point that a good story is a good story, no matter who tells it or how it's told, is well taken.

Whatever its deficincies, The Seven benefits from the superior work of its many collaborators. The score, written by Power, Justin Ellington, and Will Hammond, is an often-infectious melange of musical motifs, from hip-hop and rap to more traditional R&B and even calypso. There's even a fairly conventional but rather good show tune, "Don't Do Me Wrong," sung by Tydeus (Flaco Navaja) as he tries to stop Polynices from leaving him.

Director Jo Bonney handles the staging with her customary skill. While one wishes that the great modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones had been allowed to demonstrate his gifts more fully, he does provide some nifty movement. The physical production is quite striking. Richard Hoover's bi-level staircase/balcony set, with a small DJ booth at stage left, serves nicely as the minimal playing field. Behind it, a remarkable set of large-scale projections (created by Hoover and his team) include images ranging from a spinning record to the forest where Polynices resides. Emilio Sosa's costumes consistently fit the bill; the designer has great fun outfitting Oedipus in a Superfly/Melvin Van Peebles getup, while the peace-loving Tydeus looks like a refugee from this summer's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. David Weiner is responsible for the effective lighting, and Darron L. West once again works his sound design wizardry.

While there isn't a bad performance in the bunch, the strongest impressions are made by Off-Broadway newcomer Dobson as a compelling Polynices, Amber Efé as the sassy and sizzling DJ, Obie winner Tom Nelis (seen on this same stage just months ago as Leonard Bernstein) as Eteocles' kiss-ass right-hand-man, and Pearl Sun, who lives up to her name by shining brightest among the show's fine, five-member chorus.

Final praise belongs to New York Theatre Workshop for encouraging talents like Power, director Ivo Van Hove, and, of course, the late Jonathan Larson. I doubt that The Seven will become this decade's Rent, or that the folks at NYTW even expect that to happen; but the show is worth seeing both on its own merits and as Power's latest step in his evolution as an artist.