“All Our Tragic” envisions epic theatre for the 21st century

If epic theatre was a format successful in the twenty-first century, what would it look like? This is the problem Hypocrites founder and director Sean Graney took as his challenge while on fellowship with Harvard University last year. An effective director deeply invested in the political affordances of adaptation as a compositional mode, All Our Tragic is Graney’s most ambitious project to date. Running from August 2nd until October 5th at the Den Theatre in Chicago, the production runs 12 hours long, nine of which spent in actual performance. Epic on the page is an intensely formal genre; the play retains this characteristic to shape the attenuated narrative arc of such a duration. The sequential deaths of the Seven Sisters structure the pace of the eight acts, each no more than eighty minutes in length and divided by fifteen minute, half hour, and full hour intermissions. These dramatic cycles roughly echo the festival format of ancient Greece for which theses plays were originally written. Here, rather than in competition, the plays are knit together in a four part structure of major themes: Physic, Poetics, Politics, and Patriotism. In terms of this attention to construction All Our Tragic‘s true achievement is its formal ability to pace you evenly through the experience in which I was certainly never left feeling bored.

Herakles (Walter Briggs) gives the Seven Sisters umbrellas to battle their cannabilistic, cycloptic, would-be husbands.

The “epic” quality of this theatrical experience was primarily contained to the duration and the text’s organization, but not necessarily in the material scale of the production and the number of actors. Graney’s mark is in the production’s bricolage strategy, smartly cobbling together immediately available pop culture references (the ice-bucket challenge was mocked a time or two) and Greek tragedy formulas to craft something altogether new, something altogether pleasurable in the knowing references as much as in the surprising variations. It is that successful cultivation of the “piquancy of surprise” Linda Hutcheon identifies in A Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2012) as at the affective center of adaptation as both a process and a product. But this doesn’t capture the camp and black comedy at the tonal center. Perhaps the play gets closer to capturing the mix of ridiculous and sublime indicative of the Hypocrites house style; the production is more of a chimera as Dejanira (Tien Doman) defines it: part chipmunk, part meerkat, part llama.

While the camp was compelling, for me it was the relationships between characters and their increased complexity that the epic format allowed that caught my attention. No one actor played fewer than three characters, many managing four or five parts with barely a line flubbed. With so much doubling, you could see the effect of character “ghosting” (a la Marvin Carlson) working within a single play rather than across several. Christine Stulik—who commands an excellent sense of comedic timing—as Phedre opens the play as a mother destroyed by incest with her half-bull son to protect the innocent maidens of Greece. She ends the play as Kassandra, carrying a child of rape whose revelation is her own undoing. Walter Briggs opens the play as Herakles, an unsuccessful hero with a heart of gold. He ends it as Agamemnon, ultimately the victor of the war on Troy but murderer of his own daughter—a crime Herakles, too, is guilty of. The challenge to the actor lay in being able to allow the audience to identify these micro-themes but also see each incarnation as distinct, coming up with different answers to similar problems.

Is it the real Helen (Emily Casey) or the disguised witch pretender-Helen whose beauty sunk a thousand ships in the Trojan War?

The “ghosting” created by this excess of doubling also worked to tug on heart strings when activated between actors. For example, Philoktetes (Danny Goodman) is best friend to Herakles (Walter Briggs) and survives several generations of the play that others do not. After Herakles’ death he goes to serve Agamemnon, also played by Briggs but consistently at odds with Philoktetes, moving from the position of friend to foe. Their friction helps to underscore the separate but related tragic flaws in Agamemnon and Herakles. Ryan Bourque crafts a sympathetic Theseus who transforms from sidekick of Jason, to a successful classical hero in his own right who unwittingly causes the death of his love, to a successful leader of the Democratic State of Athens. We experience his entire life arc by the mid-point of the play. Bourque returns to the stage as a tea-obsessed and rather hapless Menelaus, also the cause of a disappeared wife. But where Menelaus leans heavily on a fantasy of happy reunion with Helen, Theseus had been made a realist by his loss of a wife. The transition is marked movingly when it is reported to Agamemnon and Menelaus at the start of their campaign for Troy by Philoctetes that Theseus has died, falling off a cliff while wrestling with Jason.

These ghosting effects, giving the audience opportunities to bring there knowledge of a previous character played by a particular actor to the new role, work to underscore the plays interest in cycles of war and violence as inevitable byproducts of civilization. Each generation posits different answers to patterns that seem to repeat; as one critic identifies those major themes: “Insecurity is ubiquitous. Love struggles. Peace is elusive.” Thus, in its serious second half the play slowly builds an interrogation of the politics of citizenry. Where do we fit in the long narrative of civilization’s evolution? Is one generation really more “progressed” that the previous, or are we still coming up with wrong answers to all the basic questions? Such a proposition would ache after several hours, basking in its own impotency, but for the camp of the presentational style.

Kassandra (Christine Stulik) meets the death she foresaw in the knitting needles.

Of the cast Lindsey Gavel, Erin Barlow, and Ezekiel Sulkes do much of the work of creating tonal discontinuity, turing All Our Tragic into a tragicomedy of which Plautus may have approved. Singing sheep and a Scottish bat-lady Greek-killer are but a few of the more absurdist elements that made me and my companion wish we had been more drunk by the final act (not that we hadn’t tried, making regular stops at the in-house bar for mimosas, wine, and Irish coffees). All told, however, the play did make me think of Plautus and his rationale for why we need tragicomedy: “I don’t think it would be appropriate to make [a play] consistently a comedy, when there are kings and gods in it. What do you think? Since a slave also has a part in the play, I’ll make it a tragicomedy.” Tragicomedy is about bringing the everyman into the arc of epic love and loss, precisely because those emotions are in fact part of the everyday—and in that, I would think All Our Tragic a success.

  • CITATION: All Our Tragic. Adapted and directed by Sean Graney. The Den Theatre, Chicago. 13 September 2014. Performance.
  • Check out Chris Jones’ video review of All Our Tragic for CBS’s “On The Town” program.
  • Check out the following interview with director Sean Graney and cast members: