Back to the Source: Great Jones’s Seven at La MaMa

The heady days of radical experimentation that gave birth to the Off-Off-Broadway scene, when the East Village was a magnet for a counter-culture that still had a sense of revolutionary verve, haunt our performance spaces—a challenge to those of us too young to have been there, a bittersweet memory to those who were.

Inspired by Artaud’s prophetic appeal for an ecstatic theater that attacks the psyche of performers and audience alike, artists like Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, Joe Chaikin and the Open Theatre, and Richard Schechner and the Performance Group all brought a sacred sensibility to the experimental stages of New York. What they seemed to share was a quasi-religious approach that made performance more of an offering than mere entertainment.

Thirty-five-odd years later, these celebrated productions of the American experimental theater scene (e.g. Paradise Now, The Serpent, Dionysus in 69) have been relegated to the status of historical artifact: you might be lucky enough to view an archival video, but there is no going back to those relics of a bygone era (as the Wooster Group’s recent Poor Theater suggests, the most we can do is simulate the remains).

So what makes the Great Jones Repertory Company’s groundbreaking Fragments of a Greek Trilogy—now thirty years old and being revived at La MaMa—any different?

La MaMa was already well established as an East Village institution when founder/ artistic-director Ellen Stewart brought Romanian director Andrei Serban to New York in 1970. The next year, Serban began to collaborate with composer Elizabeth Swados on a production of Medea that avoided translation, but instead explored the sounds of Euripides’ Greek and Seneca’s Latin texts. After its successful debut in 1972, they used the same approach with Sophocles’ Electra in ’73, and then Euripides’s Trojan Women in '74, the plays performed separately in repertory or together as Fragments of a Greek Trilogy.

Each of the plays in Greek Trilogy takes the plot, characters and language from the texts of the Attic tragedians. The sound of lost tongues merge with a tribal spectacle, an orgy of sheer theatricality that conjures the aura of a forgotten ritual, yet quite distinct from any imagined twenty-four centuries ago by the Greeks. Textual fidelity is, therefore, ostensible, as the most powerful moments are those not prescribed by the ancient scripts, such as the savage revenge taken upon Helen in Trojan Women, or the smooth descent of children’s corpses down a ramp in Medea. Fragments has since become the single work most readily identified with La MaMa. It was a defining moment for Off-Off Broadway, and the culmination of the ritualistic ensemble theater aesthetic.

Given the opportunity to attend a Great Jones rehearsal of Medea in early April, I was disappointed to learn that director Serban was not involved in the current incarnation, due to "prior commitments," and began to fear the worst: perhaps the work was ready to be relegated to history.

But then I witnessed the company’s engagement with the material. Watching Swados (the original composer and collaborator) direct the company through difficult choral chants, it was clear that this is not an attempt so much to recreate the past, as it is a return to certain energies that the work brought forth and will not dissipate. And there was no mistaking why—despite the lack of set or costuming, the primal sonic force offered by the company’s unique approach to the language (with mere traces of meaning) was a powerful reminder of how overwhelmed I was when I first saw Trojan Women in 1996, and all of Fragments in ’99. Thirty years ago the production simulated the remains of an ancient text, and the cast revive those remains yet again, overcoming any sense of time or place.
The welcome return of such an important production is not quite half the story behind Seven, which also includes Ellen Stewart’s Mythos Oedipus, Seven Against Thebes, and the premiere of her Antigone, brought together as the Oedipus Saga trilogy.

Like Fragments, the Saga explores the sonic possibilities in the mostly unfamiliar ancient Greek. Mythos Oedipus, first performed in 1996, is written and directed by Stewart with music composed by Swados. It incorporates not only parts of Sophocles’ classic, but also the backstory the Attic tragedian took for granted, with Japanese butoh a significant influence on the spectacle. Stewart’s take on Seven Against Thebes (which premiered in 2001, with Swados one of three composers) is comparatively more faithful to Aeschylus, despite being a dance opera with staging that includes puppets. As the company work toward the debut of Antigone (their twentieth original work), it is unclear as of yet what liberties they will take with the Sophoclean version of the myth.

Stewart’s Dionysus: Filius Dei, the only play of the seven that does not fit with a trilogy, had its premiere in 2002, with a vocal score by Swados. Like Mythos Oedipus, it gives much more of the myth than Euripides’s Bacchae, but explores the text’s original words as if they are archaeological ruins.

Rooted as they are in the words and myths of ancient Greece, the plays of Seven attempt to take us back to the source of theater’s majesty. With four weeks in repertory, Great Jones offer not simply history, but the Dionysian fury that gave us Off-Off Broadway.

Seven runs in repertory from May 20th–June 13th, La MaMa Theatre Annex. Box office: 74A East 4th Street (between 2nd Avenue and Bowery) (212) 475-7710. For more info: www.lamama.org.

Contributor

David Kilpatrick

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