If you’re lucky enough to see These Seven Sicknesses, you’re in for a rich adventure. It’s like setting sail. First of all, you’ll walk in to a party — there’s a buzz, the actors, in costume, are there to talk with you, offering to bring you water or wine. This is transformative, opening you to whatever’s going to happen soon on the stage, that is, the wood floor between the facing banks of the audience.
The play is an ambitious and exciting weaving together of the seven extant plays of Sophocles. It follows their basic story lines and generally their emotional arcs while changing some aspects. To catch any of Sophocles’ words you have to think fast because the language is our current lingo and delivered with today’s expressions and body language, marvelously by a superb group of young actors — the Flea’s Bats. The stories are tragic, and Graney’s treatment of them is witty and hilarious. Since it’s a long evening¸dinner is served (by the actors to the audience) after Act I and — if you can believe it –- dessert comes after Act II, which leaves room for delightful conversation among the actors and audience. Feeling so well taken care of is in itself transformative.
For those who may know Sophocles’ plays and are interested in the order in which they’re taken up, Act I presents, with these titles, Oedipus [The King], In Trachis, In Colonus. Act II: Philoktetes, Ajax. Act III: Elektra, Antigone.
The opening act is over-compressed which led me to think These Seven Sicknesses might be superficial but — hold on, it isn’t! Still, much of Act I is performed with rambunctious speed. Oedipus acknowledges his guilt fairly early on so Sophocles’ portrait of him as a searcher for truth is lost. The Oedipus episode slows down, though, for its exciting, theatrical crescendo. In a scene poignantly played by Satomi Blair, Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, drenched in guilt at the discovery of her polluted marriage with her son, steps into her bath and cuts her wrists, her blood reddening the water (in Sophocles she hangs herself). In terms of the themes of blood and pollution in the play, as Ms. Blair commented to me in the intermission, this manner of suicide is rich in symbolism. To see a woman step into a bath on the plank floor between the facing banks of seats has character of a sacrifice: it”s “not in Sophocles” but it’s filled with suggestive resonance of other sacrifices of women in these plays and at the heart of much Greek drama.
Philoktetes, next, follows most closely Sophocles’ actual and emotional story line, it’s given the time it needs, and is magnificently acted by Seth Moore: the upshot — a great Philoktetes! Years ago, as the story goes, the Greeks were headed to fight at Troy but the warrior Philoktetes had a gangrenous, disgusting leg wound, so they abandoned him on a desolate island — “They left cans of food for me but no can opener,” Philoktetes says. Now, after ten years of fruitless war, the prophetic word is out that the Greeks can’t capture Troy without Philoktetes’ magic bow. The play begins as Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, arrive on the island to get it. They and we meet a Philoktetes in agony, half-crazed with bitterness at the way he has been treated¸ his isolation, and the unrelenting pain of his rotting leg. With Odysseus and Neoptolemus plotting by fair means and foul to get that bow, the pain of suspicion is added to his anguish. Philoktetes covers the long stage with his one good leg and a make-shift crutch, his suppurating leg fallen upon, and stomped upon by Odysseus who’ll stop at nothing. In this episode several nurses, on hand throughout These Seven Sicknesses as a singing Greek chorus … Well, what they do here is an operation, more I will not say, except that it gives Seth Moore the opportunity to add some blood curdling cries of pain to his stunning performance.
Ajax, the story of another unappreciated warrior, omits Sophocles’ rich, long speeches but gives plenty of time to the main dramatic action, choreographed on a grand scale and performed with thrilling power, deft speed and spinning turns by Grant Harrison as Ajax. The hero whose name is proverbial for great strength is brooding over an unbearable blow to his honor: since Achilles, the greatest Greek fighter, died, his armor was to be awarded to the next greatest fighter and in a vote the Greeks awarded it — not to Ajax but — to Odysseus. Ajax is agonizing over the intolerable insult when a squadron of armed men and women enter in a choreographed advance, uttering the low, oddly frightening bah’s of sheep. Driven by a passion to avenge his honor, and crazed by the disrespect, Ajax enters battle against what he thinks are his enemies and slaughters them all, only to find out that he has, in his insanity, slaughtered nothing but a herd of sheep.
After that, what’s left for a hero to do?
Philoktetes and Ajax emphatically bring to mind current issues: fruitless wars that last ten years, and the grievous plight of fighters, suffering wounds that won’t heal, lacking their due respect, who may be driven to violence and suicide. Seeing these issues laid bare in ancient stories expands them to the universal.
Other highlights include Kate Michaud’s passionate and complex performance as Herakles’ wife Dejanira, stung by Herakles’ rejection of her in favor of a younger woman but loving him still — with good reason, that’s one mighty, compelling Herakles played by Victor Joel Ortiz.
With the shaved head and dark garb of a Buddhist monk, Holly Chou, a brilliant character actor playing the Blind Seer, speaks prophetic ambiguities with precise articulation — what an irony!
Betsy Lippit bounds into Elektra an explosive tomboy. What a fury she is, grappling in full rage with her mother Clytaemnestra, who brings out her side of the story, played by Akyiaa Wilson. These are only among my favorite episodes and performances — there are great moments throughout. There are, after all, 7 plays and a cast of 37!
These Seven Sicknesses is a rich feast of theater!
These Seven Sicknessess plays at the Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through March 4.*
*Due to popular demand, The Flea Theater will bring back THESE SEVEN SICKNESSES this summer. This critically lauded theatrical adaptation of Sophocles’ seven surviving plays (Oedipus, In Trachis, Philoktetes, In Colonus, Ajax, Elektra and Antigone) will return for a limited engagement June 6 through July 1