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Arts & Entertainment Preview - October 2000

Dance and Theater
B Y   J O H N   I S T E L

Of Mythic Proportions

Rehearsing <i>Tantalus</i>
   Rehearsing Tantalus

In 1998 the American Theatre Critics Association nominated the Denver Center Theatre Company for the Tony Award for outstanding regional theater. The company won, and it seems the Tony served as an arrow-prick to its ambition. On October 21, in an act of hubris that would wake a pantheon of Greek gods, the DCTC opens the world premiere of a ten-play, ten-hour dramatization of the Trojan War with the surprisingly economical title Tantalus. The epic drama has taken years to bring to fruition and has assembled forces from several different countries. The writer and classical-acting aficionado John Barton and the director Sir Peter Hall, who had previously teamed up to produce The Wars of the Roses, began the project at England's Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. With Tantalus they seem intent on not making a reverential roadtrip to survey the scenic overlooks of Greek tragic drama. Hall asserts that the tales of Helen, Achilles, Odysseus, et al. are "rattling good stories" begging for a radical reinvestigation; the lights will rise on a scene in which there are, as Hall explains, "a dozen attractive girls on a beach in bikinis, drinking wine and being funny." And the title? Barton named the cycle after the Greek king who stole secrets from the gods and, according to one version of the myth, was punished by having to live for eternity with a "rock of doom" over his head. "It's a wonderful, paradoxical, ironical metaphor," says Barton, "for civilization and the state of the world." For tickets call 303-893-4100.

Tallulah's Turn

Kathleen Turner as Tallulah
Kathleen Turner as Tallulah   

Before social-boundary breakers like Madonna and Courtney Love came Mae West and Tallulah Bankhead, two brazen "broads" (meant in the best sense of the word) whose images have been preserved primarily in drag shows. Things change, dahling. Last season belonged to West, thanks to an acclaimed off-Broadway production of her play Sex, and to Claudia Shear's meditation on her iconicity, Dirty Blonde, which moved to Broadway. This month it's Bankhead's turn: Kathleen Turner, fresh from her revealing appearance as Mrs. Robinson in a London stage adaptation of The Graduate, returns to Tallulah, a play she first performed in England in 1997 and then in Florida last year. Beginning October 3, at Minneapolis's Historic State Theatre (612-673-0404), she starts Tallulah on its slow crawl to Broadway, stopping in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, among other cities. The playwright Sandra Ryan Heyward will rework the script, and the sitcom stager Michael Lessac will helm the one-woman play. To young generations Bankhead's acting skills may be unknown; her role in Hitchcock's film Lifeboat (1944) remains her best-remembered performance. It is her offscreen and offstage persona that most people recollect. As Quentin Crisp once remarked, "She smoked a hundred and twenty gaspers a day, swore like a fisherman, drank like a fish, and was promiscuous with men, women, and Etonians. To these vices she added the sin for which there can be no redemption. She allowed -- nay, arranged -- for all these activities to be known."

Uttar Brilliance

Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory Theatre
   Ratan Thiyam's
   Chorus Repertory Theatre

Throughout its history American theater has been invigorated by visits from influential international companies. Last century tours by Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre, Dublin's Abbey Theatre, and Grotowski's Polish Laboratory Theatre broadened our theatrical horizons. Another inspirational infusion occurs this month when director Ratan Thiyam brings his Chorus Repertory Theatre, one of the most acclaimed companies in India's history, to six U.S. cities, concluding with appearances in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, October 25-28. (The other tour stops are Berkeley; Durham, N.C.; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; and Tucson. For details visit Classically trained at the National School of Drama, in New Delhi, Thiyam returned to his native Manipur in the 1970s and created a collective. "Theater is a collective work -- a collective expression," Thiyam says, "and there is no place for ... individual approaches to life." Performers farmed, raised chickens, and learned carpentry when not practicing martial arts or arduous vocal techniques. Thiyam's touring folk parable, Uttar-Priyadarshi, focuses on a vainglorious emperor seeking revenge on his mocking critics, and with spectacular stage imagery explores an ageless theme -- the battle between good and evil. The play generates universal appeal through not verbal but physical and visual virtuosity -- an emphasis born partly of necessity: India recognizes eighteen official languages and more than 1,500 different dialects. The pageant-like stage pictures in the eighty-minute piece should stay in the mind for years.

John Istel is the editor-in-chief of Stagebill.

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Photo Credits -- Tantalus: P. Switzer. Tallulah: Len Prince. Uttar-Priyadarshi: Ratan Thiyam.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

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