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

‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

Tien Doman (foreground), Halena Kays and Christine Stulik (background); photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis

Talk about dreary and oppressive — Edgar Allan Poe really laid it on thick with “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Just read the with its abundance of dismal adjectives and adverbs:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

As hauntingly weird as the story is, it’s hard not to chuckle a little bit at just how over-the-top it goes with its depiction of … Well, what does it depict, exactly? It’s not exactly a straightforward horror or ghost story. More like a suffocation under layers of psychological maladies, written long before modern terms were coined for mental disorders.

The Hypocrites lean heavily toward a campy and humorous reading of Poe’s story in their new Chicago stage version, adapted and directed by Sean Graney. The three actresses intone Poe’s words in the quivering style of a creaky old-fashioned melodrama — intentionally overwrought acting that is intended to prompt laughs. And the audience did indeed laugh on opening night, even though I found it only intermittently amusing.

More interesting was the way Hypocrites’ three female cast members — Tien Doman, Halena Kays and Christine Stulik — kept switching costumes and changing roles during the play, a ruse similar to the one Charles Ludlum used in The Mystery of Irma Vep. The women don fake facial hair whenever they play the part of the melancholy host of the creepy house, Roderick Usher, and doff it when they switch to one of the other roles. Meanwhile, the play changes Poe’s unnamed narrator, a boyfriend friend visiting Usher’s home, into a woman — adding sexual tension to the situation.

The costume-swapping increases in rapidity as the play moves toward its climax, with a clever visual gag finally letting the audience in on the joke of what’s happening. In the end, all of these antics do serve a purpose beyond amusing us. They heighten the original story’s sense of disturbing thoughts permeating the walls and flowing contagiously from one person to the next. They make the characters feel like mental extensions of one another. When this adaptation of Poe’s Usher gets peculiar and creepy at its conclusion, it finally clicks.

The Fall of the House of Usher continues through Sept. 23 at the Chopin Theater. See for details.

Getting lost in ‘Sleep No More’

I was lost in a dream for three hours one night last week in New York — wandering through the rooms of a haunted hotel, running up and down stairs as I chased after the characters from a Shakespeare tragedy, witnessing blood spilled and washed off their bodies, watching it all through the eyeholes of a white Venetian mask. This was Sleep No More, a mostly wordless version of Macbeth performed by the British theatrical troupe Punchdrunk inside a large old building in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Calling it a play is insufficient. It’s part theater, part dance, part haunted house, part art installation — and one of the most incredible artistic immersions I’ve ever been through. As I say, I was lost in a dream. Of course, as with any play or film or concert, I knew at all times that I was watching (and, to some extent) participating in a performance. A game. A play. But like few performances I’ve ever experienced, Sleep No More felt like I was in the midst of some strange thing that was actually happening.

What is it? In rooms scattered across the so-called Hotel McKittrick, a dozen actors perform Shakespeare’s tragic tale, loosely adapted from the Bard’s original “Scottish play.” Audience members, required to remain silent and wear those masks (which make them appear like the orgy participants in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) are left to wander around the hotel, essentially searching for the action wherever it’s happening.

From what I was able to figure out, the action is on a sort of loop, with each actor going through the same sequence or a similar sequence three times over the course of the show. At three points, they all gather in a grand ballroom for a tableau resembling the Last Supper — and two (or maybe three?) times, they gather in the same room to dance. In between, they go their separate ways, performing scenes solo or in small groups.

This scheme has its frustrating elements. It’s impossible for any audience member to see everything happening in every room. At the end, you’re left wondering what you missed. (For one thing, I know that I missed out on the scene where the witches give Macbeth their prophecy that he will become the king.) For some stretches of time, you look around rooms where no actors are present, while action is happening elsewhere. (That’s not a waste of time, however, since the rooms are filled with curious and striking objects and decorations, which you may scrutinize almost as much as you’d like.)

To me, however, these potential frustrations are part of what makes Sleep No More so special. They reinforced the sense that I was in the middle of complex, overlapping events — which were being witnessed in different order and from different angles by each audience member. It would be interesting to see audience members compare notes after a performance, to see how they would piece together what had just happened — much like a police officer or a journalist interviewing various witnesses to an accident or crime. In fact, I did overhear a bit of this sort of discussion in the lounge at the end of the night, people saying to one another, “Did you see the part where…?”

And while I know I saw maybe a third or a fourth of everything that happened in the Hotel McKittrick, what I did see was compelling and unforgettable — especially Lady Macbeth tossing herself around her bedroom with frightening abandon, a physical expression of her character’s famous “Out, damned spot!” line. And there were several startling moments of fight choreography and dance moves that felt downright dangerous. Seeing the story in wordless, fragmented scenes turned it into a fascinating puzzle.

Putting the audience members in those masks was a brilliant idea. As you move around the hotel and watch the other audience members, it’s impossible not to start thinking of them as characters in this unfolding drama. The actors and audience members occasionally brush up against one another. At a few points, I was alone or almost alone with an actor somewhere in the building, and it occurred to me that I was getting what was essentially private performance at that moment. In the closing scene, Lady Macbeth suddenly appeared in the midst of the crowd, standing next to me. I think I was one of only a few people who realized she was there. By standing next to her, and feeling her bump into my shoulder, I was experiencing this scene from a perspective unlike the rest of the audience. And I’m sure everyone else in the audience had similar moments different from what I went through.

Sleep No More makes you think about the possibilities of taking theater beyond its usual boundaries. It’s certainly not the first theatrical show to immerse an audience inside an unconventional space. Here in Chicago, Lookingglass once did a production of Mary Zimmerman’s Eleven Rooms of Proust with a similar conceit, which I missed, to my great regret. And other companies have taken a similar approach — but nothing as elaborate as what Punchdrunk has accomplished with Sleep No More.

If I lived in New York or if I had a chance to go back this summer, I would eagerly see Sleep No More again. Originally scheduled to close in late May, it has now been extended until Sept. 5. But more than anything, I am hoping that more theater companies find ways of putting on shows as ambitious, daring and unconventional as this. In the meantime, I am sure that my subconscious mind will be returning to the corridors of the Hotel McKittrick for a while when I drift off to sleep.

(Photo by Yaniv Schulman/The O+M Co.)

Notes from New York

APRIL 14-17, 2006

My first visit to New York since August 2001 (yes, just a couple of weeks before 9/11) began with walking around the former site of the World Trade Center. In fact, I walked past this fenced-off vacant space several times over the course of four days… until it became almost routine. Still, how strange to see all that emptiness where the towers used to be. The closest thing to a shrine is actually across the street from the WTC site, over at St. Paul’s Chapel, a church that’s been open since 1766, with centuries-old tombstones in the churchyard. The inside of the chapel remains decorated with 9/11 banners.

No New York trip is complete with a stop at the Museum of Modern Art, which has three current exhibits well worth seeing. “Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul” is an excellent retrospective of paintings and prints by the Norwegian artist famous for “The Scream.” Interesting to see this earlier painting, “Despair” (left), depicting the same scene of torment – but with the figure representing Munch looking on passively rather than opening his mouth in agony. And it’s amazing to think that Munch got his family members to pose for a reconstructed scene of his sister’s death years after the tragedy. Despite all the darkness and angst in Munch’s life, I sensed more peace in the images from late in his life, and it was interesting to see how his style evolved – and how he himself changed in a series of self-portraits from over the decades. Also at MoMA, “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking” is a set of works by artists either from the Islamic world or commenting in some way (not always clearly) on Islam. (Interesting, though the connections between the artworks are not always easily grasped.) And “On-Site” is a really stunning overview of the cutting-edge architecture happening lately in Spain.

I caught a performance of Peter Morris’ play “Guardians,” produced by the Culture Project. Inspired by Abu Ghraib, it’s essentially two alternating monologues – one by a British tabloid journalist who fabricates photos of British soldiers engaging in torture (Lee Pace) and the other by a female U.S. soldier obviously patterned after Lynndie England (Katherine Moennig). The common theme is S&M and human cruelty. Neither character is very likable, but while the play does have some difficulty reaching closure, it does pack a powerful punch – and Pace and Moenning are both top-notch.

Some highlights from walking around the gallery scene in the Chelsea neighborhood: Rona Podnick’s sculptures atSonnabend Gallery (left), with realistic human heads on globular bodies (among other things)… Didier Mahieu’s elaborate installation “A Day Elsewhere: Think Tank 2” at the Chelsea Art Museum, which made you feel like you were wandering into haunted ruins… The diverse show “Great Performance: Chinese Contemporary Photography” at Max Protech.

The Chelsea galleries had plenty of big art installations, which were also dominant at the Whitney Biennial. This major show of what’s happening in contemporary art had its share of interesting works, but it also had too much mediocre video art. Give an artist a video camera, and too often you get a half-baked bit of badly filmed and badly edited (or totally unedited) movie… projected onto a wall in a dark room, where it becomes “video art.” That being said, I do like the way the presentation of video art changes your expectations – narrative is no longer the thing. Other works in the Biennial followed in Duchamp’s and Warhol’s footsteps, appropriating other objects and turning them into “art.” OK, I get the concept… and now I’m bored. I did like plenty of the art at this show, however. My highlights were the works by Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Kenneth Anger (taking on Mickey Mouse as his latest icon) Troy BrauntuchCarter, Peter DoigPierre Huyghe (the best of the video artists)Daniel Johnston, Liz LarnerMarilyn MinterJim O’Rourke (yeah, the same guy who records with Wilco and Sonic Youth, featured here as a video-installation auteur) Ed Paschke and Nari Ward.

David Hare’s “Stuff Happens” is now in a strong production at the Public Theater – but it is rather odd to see current events turned into a play, with “characters” such as George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Tony Blair right there onstage in front of us. It’s hard not to think how you would have edited the same news stories into a play of your own, which parts you would have included or left out. I think the script could be focused into tighter, more natural scenes without all of the overarching newscast-style narration… and Bush gets a little bit lost in all of the action, his motivation as much a mystery as ever. Maybe that’s the idea. The scene at the end of Act 1 between Powell and Bush was powerful, and there were many other strong moments, but I’m not sure “Stuff” is an unqualified success. The performances were good. Some of the actors look pretty similar to their real-life counterparts, while a few are not so close (playing Bush, Jay O. Sanders is too stocky, though he has the facial expressions and voice down, and Byron Jennings looks too old to play Tony Blair, something that the makeup department could have fixed). As the audience laughs at some of the examples of Bush’s idiocy, it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable. The laughs felt a little too easy, perhaps the audience’s fault as much as the playwright’s. I wonder how “Stuff Happens” will be viewed decades from now, assuming it survives as an enduring work of theater (and assuming Hare doesn’t continue revising it every time it is performed). It should make for an interesting time capsule from the Iraq War.

The Guggenheim’s hosting a great exhibit of sculptures by the legendary David Smith. I was not that familiar with Smith’s work, to be honest, and not being a huge fan of modern sculpture, I went into the show without high expectations. Seeing his small-scale sculptures as well as the big ones was quite illuminating, however, and I ended up really liking Smith’s distinct shapes – sometimes whimsical, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, always primal.