A few weeks ago I described my thoughts about shows that do not fit in the neat 1.5 - 2.5 hour time slot that we generally set aside for them. The Flea Theater's current production of Sean Graney's These Seven Sicknesses, an imaginative stringing-together of all of Sophocles's extant works, certainly fits the bill, with a running time of just over five hours.
Like the other two shows I have seen at The Flea (She Kills Monsters and Future Anxiety), These Seven Sicknesses is filled with creative staging, innovative aesthetics, and a great deal of energy. The Flea's production truly gives their audience a night at the theater. In the spirit of this wide-ranging behemoth of storytelling, that manages to span many generations and individual tales by grouping them into seven "sicknesses," I have sought to answer the call with my own list of seven. My title should give you an idea of their nature. Like the stories within the play itself, I will start and the beginning and build from there.
Every time I enter the stage at The Flea's White Street space, I am always surprised. They manage to transform and utilize the same room in a radically different way, always keeping in mind the needs of the particular show. Designer Julia Noulin-Merat's current offering is a traverse stage adorned with hospital paraphernalia and staff. The crisp, white nurses uniforms are in stark contrast to the well-worn in names and bodies of the familiar characters on stage. Loren Shaw's costumes provide both a thru line between the stories as well as particular moments that stand out as particularly unusual (look out for some inspired animal-themed costumes here).
Of course, creative sets and great costumes are more useful tools when they have an interesting plot to wield them. Yes, Sean Graney wrote these words, but these characters were born from Sophocles's mind. The opportunity to see these stories and dynamic families in dialogue with each other is a very compelling aspect of this production. Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar highlights places of continuity and dissonance between the individual plays throughout the show.
These elements provide the frame in which the company of actors serves to bring these characters and stories to life. First of all, it is impressive to see 38 actors, all members of The Flea's resident acting company "The Bats," in such an intimate space. Katherine Folk-Sullivan's Antigone, Betsy Lippitt's Elektra, Seth Moore's Philoktetes, and Grant Harrison's Ajax are all standout performances, each with powerfully affective moments and fearless acting.
I almost said that it was impressive to see so many actors in a show that is not a musical, and though this is formally true, it does ignore a particularly interest aspect of this show. The Chorus, here re-imagined as nurses and orderlies who play musical instruments and sing, provide transitions between the pieces by serenading the audience with an array of haunting songs. The function of this chorus is a continuation of The Flea's general talent, and in this case Iskandar's particular talent, for staging large numbers of people. This rare gift also makes an appearance at several other key moments of violence and peace throughout the production.
Indeed there is more violence than peace on stage in these stories, as they are tragedies after all, yet in the moments in between acts of the performance, the entire space goes through a surprising alteration. The actors, who moments ago were bleeding, dying, and accepting their fates, now come to chat with the audience members, asking if you need anything and answering any questions you might have for them. The audience's entire experience of the production is framed by these friendly interactions, which makes for a very enjoyable evening of entertainment.
And it is a whole evening. My last two reasons to see These Seven Sicknesses go hand in hand. As I have said, the length of the show itself is enough of a novelty that some people might want to experience it for that reason alone. I have no problem with this reasoning, and I will tell you that if you want to experience a good show that lasts a long time, no other show will serve you drinks, dinner, and dessert in between the acts.
The Flea Theater's These Seven Sicknesses is a night at the theater that leaves the viewer with a rich tapestry of experiences, on both sides of the theatrical frame. I will say that, though there are very funny moments, please be aware that you will be watching bloody and violent tragedies. But if you are interested in Sophocles, long plays, and/or ambitious theatrical projects, then you should go see this production.