An unforgettable marathon of theater

Like most stage plays, All Our Tragic concludes with a final appearance by its cast. Just seeing all of those actors again — and thinking back on the multiple roles each of them had played on that stage over the previous 12 hours — was an unusually stirring experience on Sunday night. This was no ordinary curtain call. It felt more like watching runners crossing the finish line at the end of a marathon.

But it was more than that, more than just cheering for a feat of endurance (for the 23 actors and, to a lesser extent, for those of us in the audience). We had also just witnessed a devastating marathon of human folly. Adapted for the Hypocrites theatrical company by director Sean Graney from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, this was billed as “32 Surviving Greek Tragedies Performed in One Epic Narrative.”

Over the previous half-day inside the Den Theatre, we’d seen these actors playing characters who committed a seemingly endless string of atrocious deeds — fratricide, matricide, patricide, infanticide, genocide, human sacrifice, incest and betrayal, to name a few — and suffered mightily from the consequences. Seeing those actors gathered all together on the stage in the final moments of All Our Tragic was like coming across the mass grave left behind by all of this horror.

Emily Casey as Helen… or is it Helen? Photo by Evan Hanover
Emily Casey as Helen… or is it Helen? Photo by Evan Hanover

This had not been an unrelentingly grim affair, however. Far from it. It was often irreverent, as Graney and his cast played up the more absurd moments of these ancient Greek stories for laughs. This is a version of the classic tragedies filled with slangy modern dialogue and pop-culture references. All Our Tragic is not a perfect show — it’s hard to imagine any production this sprawling and ambitious, stretching on for nine hours of performance plus seven intermissions, coming off without a flaw. When All Our Tragic does falter, it’s usually when some of the attempts at humor fall flat. But that’s just a bit of nitpicking. Far more often, the daft comedy succeeds, which makes all of the tragedy considerably more bearable.

There’s a tinge of black humor to the most violent moments —the sawing of a foot, the stomping of a baby, the many squirts and spurts of blood. And yet, the silliness rarely undermines the tragic. If anything, it sneakily pulls us into the performance, building our fondness for these characters (and the actors playing them). As the tragedy accumulates, piling higher and higher, we are reminded anew of human existence’s cruelties, but also of its potential for peace, love and understanding — a potential that is often squandered or thwarted, but a potential nevertheless.

Erin Barlow and Geoff Button in All Our Tragic. Photo by Evan Hanover
Erin Barlow and Geoff Button in All Our Tragic. Photo by Evan Hanover

You don’t have to sit in the theater for 12 straight hours to experience All Our Tragic. The Hypocrites are selling separate tickets for the four parts of this epic, making it possible to see this cycle of stories spread out over a few days. But seeing it all at once (with breaks for lunch and dinner, plus shorter intermissions) is a remarkable experience. Binge-watch it if you can. Like the best long-form entertainment, it’s richer and deeper because of the time we spend with it. And how often will you ever get the chance to see a 12-hour play? Just think of all the logistical challenges the Hypocrites are going through to schedule this show.

According to a press release for the Hypocrites, the idea is to “create a contemporary Festival of Dionysus, the ancient gatherings for which these tragedies were originally crafted — to bring together a daily community to bond, eat food, drink wine and discuss complicated topics of society that we have been wrestling with since the creation of civilization.”

John Taflan and Erin Barlow in All Our Tragic. Photo by Evan Hanover
John Taflan and Erin Barlow in All Our Tragic. Photo by Evan Hanover

All Our Tragic is an audacious concept and an astounding achievement. It feels destined to become a signature moment in the history of Chicago’s theater scene. (“Remember that time when the Hypocrites performed all 32 Greek tragedies in one day? Can you believe that really happened?”)

The show’s end is the only time when the entire cast — 17 actors with speaking parts and six others — is on the stage at the same time. Most of the actors play three or four roles, and it won’t be much a plot spoiler to reveal that most of these characters are dead by the time the drama finally draws to an end. When I clapped my hands at the climax, I wasn’t just applauding the Hypocrites’ actors. I was also saluting all of those ghosts I’d come to know.

Tien Doman and Walter Briggs in All Our Tragic. Photo by Evan Hanover
Tien Doman and Walter Briggs in All Our Tragic. Photo by Evan Hanover

All Our Tragic continues through Oct. 5 at the Den Theatre, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. For details, see

Lemonade Joe: DVD review

Spaghetti Westerns are one thing, but a lemonade Western … filmed in Czech? This 1964 oddity by director Oldrich Lipsky, released recently on DVD by Chicago’s Facets, is a precursor to “Blazing Saddles” – filmed on the other side of the Iron Curtain, but set in Stetson City, Ariz. The title character is a sickeningly wholesome sharpshooter and teetotaler who dresses all in white. Just as Popeye derives his strength from spinach, Joe claims that “Kolaloka” lemonade gives him the best aim and fastest draw in town. He’s battling with the town’s whisky-swigging crowd, who are led by a mysterious bad guy known as “Hogofogo.” If that weren’t strange enough, the film includes several songs that mimic the music from American cowboy movies, but with a distinctly Eastern European accent. It’s all very silly, sometimes too much so, and at times, it gets downright surreal. Not a great film, but one that’s worth seeing just for the sheer novelty

M. Ward: Transistor Radio

First of all, let it be known that I am a huge fan of M. Ward’s music. His last album, Transfiguration of Vincent, was my favorite CD of 2003, and it also may be my favorite disc released so far this decade. Some fans will swear by the previous Ward album, The End of Amnesia, as his best. That one’s great, too. I can think of few songwriters working right now I admire as much as Ward. I’d also rank him among the best guitarists around, and one of the best singers.
Have you ever heard a band or singer for the first time and felt as if the sound was something you’d been looking for? In my case, M. Ward is one of those artists.
So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise how much I’m enjoying Ward’s newest CD, Transistor Radio (which comes out Feb. 22 on Merge Records).
Given my high expectations, I felt disappointed the first time I listened to Transistor Radio. That M. Ward sound was still there, but the songs seem quite as strong as those on Transfiguration. Maybe that was because some of them are muted, deliberately sounding distant, like broadcasts from a mysterious radio station (that being the theme of the album). I wouldn’t be surprised if some critics and listeners have the same first impression. The three-star write-up in the newMojo reads like a review by someone who hasn’t listened to it enough.
But with repeat listens, all of the melodies and musical nuances made themselves clear. Transistor Radio is another Ward classic, with one beautiful song after another, the sort of album I’d gladly listen to more than once in a row.
Although Ward describes the CD as a sort of concept album dedicated to underground and independent radio stations, it’s not clear how the concept applies to most of the songs, at least as far as the lyrics go  — other than “Radio Campaign.” The concept has more to do with the spirit of the songs and the way they sound.
Transistor Radio starts out slowly, beginning with a brief instrumental version of the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me,” followed by a song obviously designed to sound old-timey, “One Life Away,” in which the narrator directs his song “to the people underground.” It’s not clear until the end whether the “fraulein” he’s talking about is one of the living or dead people. (Even at the end, I’m not sure it’s totally clear.)
The next three songs, “Sweethearts on Parade,” “Hi-Fi” and “Fuel for Fire,” are typical Ward — melodic folk-rock tunes that could have been hits in the Simon and Garfunkel era of the ’60s or cult favorites from the likes of Nick Drake in the ’70s.
Then the album shifts into a bluesier section, with a trio of songs using more electric guitar, piano and elements of early rock. They’re far from standard wannabe oldies, though. “Four Hours in Washinghton” is a haunting scene of insomnia, without anything resembling a chorus, the lyrics more like a poem with a circular structure. The melody is slight, ranging no further than a few notes, and maybe not that original. Somehow, Ward makes it all his own. The song reaches its climax as the words end and acoustic guitar picking emerges from the mix. The next track is the instrumental “Regeneration #1,” the kind of echo-laden jam that Ward’s pals in My Morning Jacket might pull off. And then there’s “Big Boat,” a rocking gospel number with a bass piano break that echoes late ’60s Kinks classics. In case the ferry references in the lyrics aren’t clear enough for you, the CD cover shows a book titled, “Coins for Charon’s Ferry.”
As “Big Boat” ends, the CD reaches what would be the end of Side 1, and Ward says he intended for people to listen to the album as a two-sided LP. That’s an outdated conceit — how many people are actually going to listen to this on vinyl? — but it’s still not a bad way to organize the songs for an album.
“Side 2,” such as it is, begins with “Paul’s Song,” a pretty and melancholy tune that declares every town seems the same to a touring musician. From there,Transistor Radio runs through a series of six more classic Ward songs, showing his great knack for coming up with tunes that sound simple on the surface but work their way into your head. The title of “Radio Campaign” refers to a single line in the song, and it’s a wonderful idea: A guy putting out the word in a radio campaign that he wants to get back his old “peace of mind.” One of the last songs, “I’ll Be Yr Bird,” was already as a bonus track on the reissued version of Ward’s first album, “Duet for Guitars #2,” but I don’t mind hearing it again, here in its new context.
Closing as it began with an instrumental guitar performance, Transistor Radio comes to a peaceful and achingly lovely conclusion on “Well-Tempered Clavier”  — actually, the first prelude of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” It’s a beautiful composition that has almost become a cliche as a study piece for piano students, and yet I’ll never grow tired of hearing it or playing it, and it’s such a joy to hear Ward transcribing it for guitar.
And at that point, I feel like going back to that Beach Boys song that began it all. If this really were an LP, I’d be turning it over to Side 1 again.

Midlake: Bamnan and Silvercork

Overlooked CD of 2004? It may be Bamnan and Silvercork by Midlake. It placed at No. 570 in the Pazz & Jop Poll, but I’ll venture a guess that its would have ranked higher if more people had heard it. Yet another band from that font of musical creativy known as Denton, Texas, Midlake is from the same school of high-voiced modern art-rock grandeur as Grandaddy, Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips.
This slightly lo-fi but highly listenable rock opera is set in some mythical place ruled authority figures known as “Monicle Men.” The good guys are trying to escape in baloons and coping with the unpleasant work conditions in the particle-separation room, which make it difficult for them to bake “kingfish pies.” The story, such as it is, reminds me of “Yellow Submarine” (the movie, not the song) and that British TV show “The Prisoner.” The most compelling songs are “They Cannot Let It Expand” (which repeats the title line over and over), “Kingfish Pies” and “Mopper’s Medley,” but there are many catchy tunes here, and the whimsical worldview gives it the appeal of a good puzzle.