"Tantalus: Behind the Mask," to be shown Sunday as part of the "Stage on Screen" series on PBS, makes its theatrical subject look like a genuine should've-seen. Was it? That's a separate issue. Even with its hyperbolic touches, however, this making-of documentary serves as an entertaining backstage chronicle, the saga behind a saga requiring many millions, many months and much gall.
In October 2000, Sir Peter Hall's production of a 10-play cycle of Greek myths took the stage of the Denver Center Theatre Company. The plays, originally planned as a 15-hour experience, were written by Royal Shakespeare Company associate John Barton. RSC founder Hall embarked on the project (which recently traveled to England) with two co-directors: Mick Gordon of Dublin, and Hall's son, Edward. The scenic and costume designer came from Greece; the lighting designer was Japanese. The potential for chaos was huge.
Chaos there was. Gordon left in a huff months before opening; an actor or two bailed (no mention of this in the documentary); technical deadlines came and went unheeded. Would Hall pull it off? Was "Tantalus" in fact, as "Behind the Mask" would have it, "as bold as the Greek plan to build a Trojan horse"?
Some of us who saw the production in Denver could only wish the onstage results--in the end, not quite eight hours of show, minus the intermissions and meal breaks--reflected more of that rehearsal strife and creative tension. But Dirk Olson, the director of "Behind the Mask," doesn't squander his nearly unlimited access to the process. (Two words you hear a lot of in any theater documentary: "process" and "journey.") The show's interest in the practical side of matters, the nuts and bolts of assembling a formidable undertaking, pays off.
The camera trails composer Mick Sands to a junkyard outside Denver, in search of brake drums to be used for percussion. As honest as they can be in front of a camera, actors in and out of costume talk about their struggle with masks--Hall's staging was lousy with them--as well as the seven-month-rehearsed project as a whole. Ensemble member Greg Hicks describes "Tantalus" as "10 hours of brutality and bloodletting and revenge and viciousness." The plays' conflicts echo those in and out of rehearsal room.
It's interesting stuff, very slickly assembled into a two-hour package. The opening-day (and -night) performance of the entire 10-play megillah is treated as a bit of an afterthought, albeit one destined to conquer the world and slay critics one and all. (Well, most; some of us were mixed.) But sometimes, getting to opening night makes for a better yarn than the night itself.
"Tantalus: Behind the Mask" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV. It is rated TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children).