Monday, September 12, 2011


“Disrespectful.” “Lacking grandeur.” “Midwestern.”

Listening to intermission chatter is always a riot, not to mention a unique learning opportunity for a theatergoer. Lobbies become limbos of corroded expectation and loudmouthed brainiac assertions; factoid minefields.

This show is good/bad because [fill in the blank].

Of course, everyone is entitled to their own distinct opinion (well, other than Ann Coulter...), but what really struck me during the first intermission of The Hypocrites' Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses (currently running at the Chopin Theatre) was the depth of the audience commentary. Folks were really confused, and considering we were all stuffing our faces with yummy vegan eatables, they were downright befuddled. They all knew what a Greek play was, and yet they had no idea what they were watching.

So, what is it? Is Greek a genre, style, both, or neither? Well, first and foremost, it's delicious. But all saganaki aside... What truly characterizes Greek theatre? A seasoned gentlemen seated on the plush couch to my right in the Chopin's eclectic basement lounge believed grandeur to be a key player. Eh, kinda. What is grand to us size-wize was par-for-the-course in ancient Athens. And as for the perceived formal grandeur of Ancient Greek, much is lost in time and translation. British people certainly sound formal, but have you ever had dinner with one? Better know your favourite football club... So those are all legitimate, I daresay, commonplace conceptions as to what Greek theatre is all about...

...But The Hypocrites get them there Greeks a whole lot better than any Mr. Moneybags regional theatre or grossly overpriced textbook. This innovative company knows that, at its core, Greek theatre is a reflection of community, togetherness, and culture. With Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses, director Sean Graney has adapted and conceptualized the remaining seven texts of (you guessed it) Sophocles, and given them voice for our community, our culture, our heartbeat.

Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses is a work of staggering conceptual scope (including Oedipus, In Trachis, In Colonus, Philoktetes, Ajax, Elektra, and Antigone), running about four hours, yet someway, somehow it is more intimate and more inclusive than my primordial cave-like studio apartment. Graney, his cast and crew go out of their way to cultivate a warm, familial environment for their audience, and it is absolutely integral and vital to the success of this production. Seems a teensy bit strange to feel enveloped by waves of group positivity, feel good vibes, and a communal meal as you observe a woman's esophageal lining become acquainted with the acidic burn of bleach... But then again, I imagine you have, at some point in your life, watched a horror movie with friends. Greek theatre should be kind of like a horror movie. Skream.

And this horror movie is most definitely a Chicago-based horror movie. It takes place in a hospital. Like Chicago Hope and ER, these tiled floors see a whole lot of blood, saliva, vomit, dirt, sickness, and any number of other unpalatable yucky messes, but they always get mopped up. Greece always rebuilds. Thanks to two saucy nurse-chorus members played with eye-roll-larity by Sarah Jackson and Shannon Matesky. The entire company of actors is completely in-tune and fantastically transformative. Character changes happen seamlessly, and the performances are uniformly vibrant. Tien Doman’s portrayal of Denjanira, the tragic wife of Heracles, brings new life to a text that is given the cold shoulder far too often. Same goes for Walter Briggs’ sexually-charged, powerful Ajax.

The design team beautifully imposes story and personality onto a sterile hospital scene. The colors of Tom Burch and Maria Defabo’s runway stage are stark white, robin’s egg blue, and sickly green, evoking not the Mediterranean, but the Mediterranean’s subterranean underbelly. Jared Moore’s lighting design burns lasting images into your retinas, and Stephen Ptacek’s sound design marries oddly, and chillingly well with the godly rumble of the Red Line below.

The real star is Sean Graney’s unpredictable adaptation. Graney's whipsmart dialogue zigzags between the colloquial (“Like, ya know”) and the formal (“plow her fields”) , often using abrupt shifts to make light of the overblown tragedy playing out before us. There is a clever, invisible purpose behind the jawdroppingly funny humor though, and that is the genius of this compilation.

Audiences today cannot sob together. Nope. We’re just too scared. We have been woefully, yet successfully conditioned to stifle honest tears, and if you're anything like me, you actually consider getting measly watery eyes to be full-on "crying".

But we sure do love to laugh, don't we? Laughing has got to be one of the few universal human constants; one of the few 'Ties That Bind' (the first track of Bruce Springsteen's "The River" from which the evening's music is mined from). Here the tragic is symbiotically bound to the comic, achieving a modern equivalent to the original Greek audience's response. Pretty damn cool. The performance I attended was chocked full of critics and Jeff Award voters. Not exactly a rowdy, happenin’ bunch, but you’d never know that from the roars. Graney’s text and the ensemble’s quirks are so bellysmackin’ funny that as you watch the play...on a couch...spattered by blood, your neighbor becomes your friend. A lovely and all too infrequent sensation.

For a production to captivate an audience for even ten minutes is a sadly reserved luxury in today's theatrical climate. But for an entire hour, the climactic end of Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses grabs you by the jugular, beckoning you forward without option. That being said, the pleasures and sensations brought forth by Sophocles are more akin to those achieved through sadomasochism than through your run-of-the-mill “wah! wah! wah!” production of Antigone. This creative team has a paddle, a whip and a ball-gag, and the safe word is ‘Sickness’. The slap-in-the-face final sixty minutes of Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses solidifies The Hypocrites’ season opener as the theatrical event of flu season.-Johnny Oleksinski

Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses runs at the Chopin Theatre through October 23.