Matricide, patricide, incest, castration, buckets of blood and cupcakes. How’s that for an evening? Despite being a five-hour interpretation of classical Greek tragedy, These Seven Sicknesses at the Flea Theater, is one of the best nights of entertainment currently available in New York. And it includes delicious dinner, chats with the actors, and not only cupcakes but cookies too all for an astonishing bargain price of $40.
Sean Graney’s interpretation of Sophocles’ seven surviving plays is not for the squeamish. The blood and gore run thick and fast from the first play, Oedipus, to the seventh, Antigone. It’s the perfect vehicle for the Flea’s resident acting ensemble, the Bats, as it gives memorable roles to nearly all of the 38 strong cast, sadly too numerous to mention them all.
They fill the tiny stage with youthful vigor and good looks and so much acting talent it is often hard to know where to look. They also make charming conversationalists and servers during the dinner break (catered to perfection by the nearby restaurant Macao Trading Company) and the dessert interval (sweet treats provided by another Tribeca establishment, Billy’s Bakery).
It’s all part of director Ed Sylvanus Iskander’s pursuit of what he calls “socially immersive theatrical events.” The program explains that Ed hopes “spending an evening at the theater will become as much about the party as it is about the play.”
The Flea’s narrow stage is transformed by designer Julia Noulin-Merat into a hospital ward where five endearing yet unsettling nurses in white uniforms become an updated version of the Greek chorus. They reflect on events and punctuate the plays with song accompanying themselves on guitar, ukulele and banjo.
The action starts with Oedipus, played with dramatic clarity by Jeff Ronan. He discovers he has murdered his father and married his mother and thus fulfilled the fate predicted by the Blind Seer, eerily captured by Holly Chou. It is the first in a series of horrific events, which doom generations of Greek royalty. It is also the first of the really gory parts. Satomi Blair as Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife/mother boldly set the tone for the violence to come with her affecting suicide in a bathtub. Blood spurted liberally over members of the audience in the front row as she slit her wrists. Oedipus kept up the pace by gouging out his eyes. The drama on stage became the icebreaker off stage as audience members recoiled from the mayhem and discussed how to remove stage blood from clothes.
The production does not shy away from the graphic. Later Philoktetes, affectingly played by Seth Moore, has his foot graphically amputated by the nurses. Herakles, given real presence by Victor Joel Ortiz, had already been accidently murdered in slow writhing agony by his jealous wife Dejanira. Kate Michaud gave a standout performance as the spurned wife driven to distraction by the perfectly cast Liz Tancredi as Iole, the new wife.
The bloody suicides and grisly murders don’t let up. Grant Harrison as a mesmerizing Ajax suffering from what resembles the modern world’s posttraumatic stress stabs himself. The bloodiest murder of all though is committed by a crazy Elektra, given contemporary punk life by Betsy Lippitt and her equally insane brother Orestes the creepily angelic Erik Olsen. Their victim is their mother Clytemnestra, here a powerful Akyiaa Wilson, whose blood flows in rivers across the stage.
But while the violence is inescapable, the plays though classical in content reveal plenty of contemporary parallels. The mad battle between Ajax and human sheep is both scary and hilarious and a commentary on the folly of war. Honor and loyalty are explored, but betrayal and treachery nearly always prevail. Philoktetes appears to sum up the bleak nature of the plays: “Sorry is a word in an empty sea.”
Tying together the seven plays are the Carrier, Tommy Crawford’s scooter -riding sardonic bearer of unrelenting bad news and Stephen Stout’s compellingly world-weary Creon, Oedipus’ brother. Together they provide ample humor that alleviates the grim sight of the mounting pile of bodies.
Five hours fly by with ease. The breaks for dinner and dessert provide ample time to recover from the latest atrocity but also to stretch and refuel for the next onslaught. Don’t miss this theatrical event, take a date (the violence is your cue to cling to your companion), and wear black to hide the blood spatters.