Sophocles wrote more than 120 plays, of which only seven survive. Such a low ratio seems itself a tragedy, but considering the proud ambitions of writer Sean Graney and director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, maybe it’s not too terrible. They have decided to combine all the extant Sophocles tragedies into These Seven Sicknesses—an elaborate, energetic, and sometimes exhausting evening of theater at the Flea. It runs nearly five hours with breaks for dinner and dessert included. Had a few more tetralogies remained, they would have had to provide bedtime snacks, sleeping bags, and breakfast, too.
As the anthology’s title suggests, Graney and Iskandar have taken a somewhat clinical approach to the work. Graney has larded each short play with medical terminology, some of which would have been familiar to Sophocles—infection, contagion, wound, blood—and others that seem to be a stretch—pathogen, virus, genetics. Iskandar has set the plays in a distinctly unhygienic hospital ward, with blood and other fluids staining the walls and a corps of nurses and an orderly scurrying about and occasionally bursting into harmony.
As governing metaphors go, this is a smart one. Many of Sophocles’s plays, but by no means all, take on topics of sickness and disease, exploring how the suffering of individuals affects the community. But Graney has to strain to extend the metaphor into the plays in which it works less well, characterizing Elektra’s brother and sister as contaminated, inventing a plague for Antigone. He makes other changes to force the plays to resonate with one another, such as shunting Philoktetes into Ajax or carrying Herakles’s bow into Elektra.
These aren’t by any means bad ideas, but there are too many of them. In addition to the illness metaphors, Graney and Iskandar also arrange the plays into three thematic sections: “Honor Lost,” “Honor Found,” “Honor Abandoned”—delineations, which, like the medical allegory, don’t hold up in every case. To see Antigone, who sacrifices herself for a question of honor, in a play labeled “Honor Abandoned” is to puzzle at categories, as is the treatment of Oedipus at Colonus, here styled In Colonus. Originally, the play ends with Oedipus dead but somehow redeemed, protected by Theseus and elevated to the status of a demi-god. But Graney has the play end tragically (the better to fit with “Honor Lost”?) and portrays Theseus as a tyrant.
Other strange choices include the deliberate colloquialisms, such as translating “sphinx” as “hell bitch” or having characters declare, “that’s gross,” “he’s cute,” “that felt weird to me.” Philoktetes even speaks of can openers. Perhaps Graney means to suggest the similarity of our own time to this ancient one, but instead the vernacular seems sophomoric. So do the attempts at humor. Unlike Euripides’, Sophocles’ tragedies aren’t very funny—unless played as parody—yet Graney supplies comic bits while cutting the most legitimately comic passage, the messenger’s speech to Creon in Antigone. Graney and Iskandar also make factual changes, amputating Philoktetes’s foot, having Jocasta slit her wrists, wounding Neoptolemus with an arrow, maybe to up the levels of gore. Everyone knows that the violence happens offstage in Greek drama. Not here.
Were medicine, honor, colloquialism, and comedy insufficient, Graney and Iskandar have another grand narrative in mind. Creon closes out Antigone with the lines, “Sickness lays with in us all./Cruelty,/Selfishness,/The ability to not sympathize,/Will be the death of us all.” To discourage lack of sympathy, Iskandar forces the 38-member cast to mingle with the audience during pre-show and intermissions, interrupting your own conversations to ask how you heard about the evening and offering—again and again and again—to fetch you a glass of water or tea. The Bats, the Flea’s attractive resident acting company, are as ever insanely good sports (several of them are good actors, too), and their solicitations are sweet. But if you’re shy or tired or would like to get on with your own chat with your seatmate, they’re also cloying. Iskandar should have enough faith in his efforts to let the material stand on its own and not demand these interactions.
But really, it’s hardly a flaw at all—and certainly not a tragic one—that young artists should have too many ideas rather than too few. And at $40, including tasty vegan dinner, tickets are an immensely good value—particularly for anyone cramming for a classics exam. (Just don’t write “hell bitch” on your final.) However, the Greek gods didn’t always look mildly on such ambition. Perhaps for their next collaboration, Graney and Iskandar will dial down the participatory aspects and condense and clarify the central metaphors. The Greeks have a term called sophrosyne—it means balance, moderation, an intelligent satisfaction. It’s the constitutional opposite of hubris. And for Iskandar and Graney, it might prove a useful dictum.