Ruth Margraff is a playwright with a singular voice, an artist whose work pushes boundaries linguistically and theatrically, challenging any expectations we might bring with us to the theater. Her latest show, appearing July 20–23 as part of the annual Ice Factory Festival, is no exception.
“This is the play that ended up being a band,” she says of Three Graces, which promises to be as unique in production as it was in Margraff’s visceral process of creation. Described as an “operatic panorama” in form, a kind of “Iliad for modern Greece,” the piece, inspired by rebel songs of Crete, recreates for audiences a tavern atmosphere that has endured in Greek culture for centuries.
The piece will be the fifth offering in this year’s Ice Factory, which has moved further downtown to the 3LD Art & Technology Center at 80 Greenwich Street after the closing of the Ohio Theater at the end of last year’s Festival. (The un-air-conditioned Ohio held a sweaty, special place in the collective heart of downtown theater, after 29 years of opening its Wooster Street doors to the most groundbreaking companies around.)
Three Graces’s story is based on the little-known 1889 Cretan uprising against the occupying Ottoman Empire; the rebellion failed, but it encapsulates the collision between West and East that recurs throughout history. Not to mention another age-old dilemma: characters are torn between inciting revolution, and giving way to the late-nights, music, and opiates of the tavern.
Margraff was introduced to the history and world of the piece by composer-collaborator Nikos Brisco (himself a Greek-American, by way of Texas), who gave her the novel Freedom or Death by Nikos Kazantzakis, of Zorba the Greek-fame. “It’s a very macho book,” Margraff admits, deciding to focus her version on the women. She’s created the character Three Graces who leads us through the tale with her song, along with a Romani gypsy Roxelana, and an Orthodox woman Irini who laments like the goddess of the Iliad.
From Three Graces Act I, Scene 3: “View from the Wall #1”
[Sung as the men of the tavern hallucinate. IRINI moves along a stone wall of ruin…ROXELANA’s jewelry tinkles behind the lattice.]
In the bloodwings passing over
Tables set with the ash of Crete
In the scatter of our fathers on the sea
That tore the tears across our cheeks
If his hand had never broken
Where he brushed against the Pasha’s horse
Hot and wet, its bosom heaving
From a crest of Ayia Sofia jewels
We know all the riddles of the streets…
If we push against the graves
To bury one more iron angel
Loose the snakes to swallow
Golden wings and flaming sword
Black with the powder of the rebel
Where his roots were cut
If we drag the last embrace
To fell another shrieking widow
Wrestling Charos in the blood wings
Black and wet upon the stones…
While giving a voice to the women at the edges of this world, Margraff doesn’t deny the men: Greek rebel leader Michales, his Turkish blood brother Cengiz, the half-Greek-half-Turk trickster Karaghiozis, and the hash-addicted-troubador Lambros.
Their world of “extreme violence and extreme masculinity,” is territory that Margraff has treaded before, in the Texas barroom brawls of her Centaur Battle of San Jacinto, and martial arts collaborations (Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon)with composer Fred Ho. She’s also visited the Greeks, with her classically inspired Elektra Fugues; but here she explores that culture with all its Turkish and Balkan flavors, especially through the complicated relationship between Michales and Cengiz.
From Three Graces Act I, Scene 4: “Lemon Blossoms”
[The two men wrestle like devils, a slow colossal nightmare of wrestling where they spar against each other half asleep, half drunk from an Othodox chalice, like ancient sculpture.]
A crimson line has always run between your own and mine.
My father’s blood cries out where he was slain against the rocks.
My father had no right to ride a horse. Before he was blown sky high with 900 women, children and monks crouched down in the cellar at the Arkadi monastery.
And to think I rode through the Greek quarter bewitching the women. Until you threw me like a sack of grain to the dogs of the roof.
There is no room for both of us in this world.
I told my servants to bring us very old wine. Shut the gates. When we became blood brothers.
A brotherhood of Greek and Turk. Or was the knife not deep enough.
You mixed your blood and mine with a dagger. Or is your only oath to your sword.
[They cut their hands, wipe the daggers in their hair, stir the blood and drink.]
After the jump-start of Kazantzakis’s novel, Margraff traveled to Greece on a Fulbright and immersed herself in the landscape, music, and people. Venturing off the tourist path and spending a month and half on the island of Crete, the longer she lingered, the more interesting things got. The tavern culture—with its potent drink, hunks of meat, and knives in the boots—is still something that exists today, thriving in the cracks of the island’s rock, she discovered. Her travels also reinforced: “I’m a modern woman, I’m not from this old world culture, so I was really confronting all of that with this project.”
All this became fodder for what might be the most interesting aspect of Three Graces’s development process. For a playwright, the very phrase “development process” may conjure up rehearsal rooms with fluorescent lighting, copies of scripts in binder clips, sitting around a table talking about character trajectories. Instead, Margraff took the approach of “trying to get into the sinews of the characters and using my own voice to figure out who these people are.”
By “voice,” she means literally; Margraff, even without formal training as a singer, began performing songs with Café Antarsia Ensemble, a band she formed with composer Nikos Brisco. The characters and pieces of the libretto were developed through performances at venues and festivals around the world. The music itself is inspired by a kind of Greek Blues: “a lot in nines and sevens,” says Margraff, the result sounding more Eastern to the American ear.
In the Three Graces performance in the Ice Factory Festival, the band acts as a chorus for and with the characters, a group of tavern musicians that will underscore what happens on stage. In total, there are nine performers: five actor/singers and four musicians, including Margraff and Brisco.
Moving from behind the script and computer, to behind the microphone and keyboard, really is as scary as it sounds, says the soft-spoken Margraff. But that fear and rawness is part of the aesthetic too. In our phone conversation, Margraff—inspired by recent travels to the south of Spain—kept returning to duende, that concept that Lorca famously describes in his essay about the expressiveness and passion of the flamenco singers and dancers. Margraff conceives of Three Graces not as the women of Greek mythology, but rather as a mix of angel, muse, and duende.
Margraff describes her experience performing as “something that I just need to go there with. It’s not pretty, but there’s something grotesque and beautiful about the tearing and uprooting and difficulty of it.” The text and the music are all of one pallet in her painterly, almost Cubist way of thinking about the work—not typical to the worlds of new opera or mainstream American theater, but a sensibility fostered by her current environment at Chicago’s Art Institute, where she has been an associate professor since 2007, after years of living in New York. Three Graces is all about painting the moments.
“And duende opens the door on death,” Margraff adds. Remember, this piece is about a failed rebellion, one that Margraff found little written about, even while in Greece. The character of Michales struggles throughout to free Crete from Turkish rule:
My god and I are horsemen
Galloping across the burning sun…
Almighty chaos, black despair
We are in peril every moment
Will we rise again, will we ascend
With these immortal horses…
It is my duty, when I hear his cry
To run under his flag, to fight by his side
Passion aplenty, and yet it ends badly: Michales dies knowing that he has failed. And so Margraff delivers a more traditionally operatic ending rather than the kind of neat resolution that the American theater more often prescribes. “I think the Greek tragedy is like that too,” she notes. “They wait for us to resolve it, and that’s catharsis.”
Margraff herself is particularly drawn to the character of Michales, as the rebel who goes at it alone when others are seduced by the wine and hash of the tavern. “As an artist, you have to be willing to end at that place of failure. I don’t see a lot of that. I have to stick to my convictions, and I think I have, with the art that my soul is compelling me to create.”