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THEATER

Another Trojan Battle

The fight to stage a new epic of the ancient wars involved three nations, millions of dollars and a substitute director.

August 20, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

DENVER — Serious mountain climbers in Colorado try to bag all 52 of the state's peaks that rise higher than 14,000 feet.

While trying to explain what it's like to mount the Denver Center Theatre Company's current project, "Tantalus," the theater's artistic director, Donovan Marley, initially said it was like scaling one of those 52 "fourteener" peaks. On second thought, however, he observed that there will never be 52 productions on the level of "Tantalus."

Maybe the metaphor should be climbing all 52 peaks within a year--and perhaps also throwing in an ascent of Alaska's Mt. McKinley, the highest point in North America. All of that might add up to the mountaineering equivalent of producing "Tantalus."

In the arena of big-budget North American theater, it's unlikely that any production has ever had a longer running time (10 hours, 30 minutes) or rehearsal period (25 weeks before the scheduled previews--or 1,125 hours).

"Tantalus" may also set a record as the most expensive project ever in the American nonprofit theater. Primarily because of its long rehearsal period, "Tantalus" is expected to cost at least $8 million--not counting administrative support provided by the Denver company and by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which houses the company.

The massive production will open in Denver on Oct. 21 and 22 and play through Dec. 2, then go on a tour of England before opening at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London next April.

The plot of "Tantalus" is, essentially, a freshly written dramatization of the Trojan Wars. Those wars were ignited when a great beauty left her husband and ventured across the water, supposedly seduced by a dashing suitor.

The history of "Tantalus" itself offers a very rough parallel. An English production was in the works for years. But when England and the rest of Europe failed to cough up enough money to pay for the premiere, "Tantalus" and its celebrated director, Sir Peter Hall, crossed the water at the invitation of a wealthy suitor: Donald Seawell, founder and chairman of the Denver Center.

Only in the last couple of months have European sources finally raised enough money to bring "Tantalus" back home. Fortunately, no transatlantic war will be necessary to accomplish this--the Americans and Europeans are working hand in hand.

Not that "Tantalus" hasn't encountered additional hurdles in America. Mick Gordon, who was one of the project's triumvirate of directors along with Hall and Hall's son, Edward, left without warning in July. And playwright John Barton, who has been away from Denver during most of the rehearsals, became concerned enough about revisions of his script that he insisted that the billing be altered somewhat: The current phrasing calls the epic "Sir Peter Hall's production of 'Tantalus,' adapted from a 10-play cycle by John Barton, with additional text by Colin Teevan" (who is an associate director).

"There's something fascinating about trying to climb this mountain," Marley said. "But there are days when I ask myself: 'Why did we ever start?' "

*

The process started within the brain of Barton, who is best known as an adapter of classics for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He devised an English historical revue, "The Hollow Crown," and condensed Shakespeare history plays into "The Wars of the Roses." Barton and Kenneth Cavender adapted ancient Greek plays into "The Greeks" in 1980.

Although "The Greeks" (seen in Los Angeles last fall in a revival by the Odyssey Theatre) used the works of the established Greek masters, some of whose styles are quite different from each other, "Tantalus" is Barton's baby. In Peter Hall's words, the text uses Barton's "very lean, quick, unmetaphorical verse" to tell the ancient tales, without necessarily referring to the surviving Greek plays. Barton explores fragments and nooks and crannies of the Greek legends--some of which weren't covered by Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides--and interprets them from a modern perspective.

"As I put the story together, it seemed to me there were obvious gaps; for example, there is no play about why the Trojans take in the wooden horse," Barton said in a statement issued by the Denver Center (he was not available for an interview). "I set about telling the story in my way, sometimes overlapping with existing material. Basically I was exploring the question, both historical and mythical, of 'what is the truth of it?' "

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