Despite a running time that could put you at risk of deep vein thrombosis, Sean Graney’s 12-hour All Our Tragic is primarily an exercise in compression. The production—which is the first to be staged at the Hypocrites’ new space on the ground floor of the Den Theatre—is a loose adaptation of all 32 surviving Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Rather than presenting each play as a separate unit, writer-director Graney has stitched them all together to form one massive, multigenerational saga, trimming, rewriting, and shifting emphasis as he sees fit. The marathon performance (you can also see it in smaller chunks), is divided into four parts, each centering on a different figure or story: Herakles, Oedipus, the Trojan War, and the house of Atreus.
There are detours, but, in rough outline, we pass from an age of mythical heroics into one of murky politics, brutal war, and familial violence. It’s not a simple trajectory, though. Several recurring motifs—slaughtered innocents, hand-to-hand combat, desecrated corpses—remind us that each age has its acts of valor, folly, and destruction.
The same evidently tireless 14 performers play all of the main parts, allowing us to consider connections between characters separated by generations. As the dimwitted strongman Herakles and, later, the bullheaded Greek leader Agamemnon, Walter Briggs suggests guileless bravery giving way to ruthless militarism. Ezekiel Sulkes conveys decency and ambivalence as both the good-hearted Athenian King Aegeus and Oedipus’s duty-obsessed successor, Kreon. And, playing Oedipus’s mother-wife Jokasta as well as the doomed Trojan seer Kassandra, Christine Stulik shows how foresight and willful blindness can lead to the same bloody end.
As in his previous adaptations of Shakespeare and other canonical authors, Graney exhibits zero interest in pleasing purists. He reduces the chorus, for instance, to a trio playing toy instruments on the sidelines. More significantly, the gods are nowhere to be seen, removing any possibility of interpreting the characters as victims of the horny meddlers of Olympus. Instead, destinies are determined by some combination of chance, luck, and the past.
Another aspect of Graney’s previous work that’s on full display here—and that works surprisingly well, given the serious nature of the source material—is his playful, bubblegum-pop sensibility. Visually, it’s there in Alison Siple’s fairy-tale-meets-modern-dress costumes. But it’s even more prevalent in the dialogue; everybody talks like teenagers (“Are you, like, banishing me?”), and Graney can’t resist any opportunity to deflate puffed-up classical rhetoric with a silly accent, contemporary reference, or fart joke.
This sort of thing can be very funny and, sometimes, pretty irritating (especially during long stretches of chirpily delivered exposition). But the show’s essentially adolescent worldview allows Graney to write movingly about an essentially adolescent experience: losing innocence.
Since the cycle stretches across several generations, we meet a large number of parents and kids over the course of the show. Graney’s sympathies clearly lie with the youngsters. The production is at its most affecting when we see how the vulnerable children of Herakles, Oedipus, Agamemnon, and others are hurt, hardened, or bewildered by the suffering they undergo, often due to events set in motion, whether unwittingly or not, by their elders. In true tragic fashion, destruction is unavoidable, even if Graney’s loopy compassion offers a kind of humanist grace.
Though not exactly what Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides depicted, the process of being exiled from childhood is, the show suggests, as inexorable and can be as terrible as what happens in the original plays. In the vibrant and violent world Graney has created, the real tragedy is growing up.