Created and Directed by Joanne Akalaitis
Off Broadway, Site-Specific Theater
Ran through 9.8.19
NYU Skirball, 566 LaGuardia Place
by Asya Gorovits on 9.11.19
Rachel Christopher and Jasai Chase Owens in BAD NEWS! i was there.... Photo by Ian Douglas.
BOTTOM LINE: Joanne Akalaitis' site-specific promenade play looks at the role of the messenger in the theatre of Ancient Greece.
Long before the institution of mass media, not to mention social media contributors armed with instant photography and live stream video, eyewitness accounts were the only source for knowledge of an event. Using messenger speeches from ancient Greek drama, renowned theater artist Joanne Akalaitis invites the audience to join together on a site-specific journey through the hallways of NYU Skirball.
Before the show, the audience is invited to congregate in the lobby, where they can contribute an anonymous note with bad news to one of the dropboxes, and take a look at the art installation (lobby video by Ian A. Belton shot by Yvette Mattern; sound installation by Margan Green and Bruce Odland). The entire wall is dedicated to prints of ancient Greek personas, events, and maps mixed with photographs of contemporary catastrophes torn from newspapers. In the center of it all is a massive genealogical tree of the gods and heroes of Ancient Greece.
The cast of eight, all dressed in neon yellow construction vests (a peculiar costume choice by Julie Archer), poses as a Greek chorus; each actor is also assigned a specific role. Aside from the opening and finale (done all together), the audience divides into four groups, each visiting in turn the four locations around the theater to witness the story of each character. Two cast members and a child singer await at each “stage” to tell and sing the stories of Medea, Thyestes, Phedre, Oedipus, Antigone, and others.
The transitions between the parts become an event in themselves. Led by guides holding makeshift lanterns (clear makeup bags holding LED lights), the streams of people resemble ritualistic processions, heightened by the beautiful singing. “Paris, Priam, Hector, Hecuba…” repeat the cast members and guides in somber unison; “Cassandra, Cassandra” occasionally punctuates the soprano somewhere near or behind, the sound seemingly coming out of thin air.
Although we hear wonderful soloists throughout the show proper, nothing chilled my blood like the single line chanted on a loop during these transitions. From suddenly emerging all at once, to the final moments of anticipation before the last epic scene, the chant holds your hand on the journey through the hallways and orchestra (where the access to the seats is blocked by yellow caution tape) with ceremonial mystery and comforting consistency.
In the shop in back of the theater, a heavy dolly, secured with sandbags, functions as a stage. Brooms, sheets of plywood, and other building and cleaning paraphernalia, normally hidden from the eyes of the audience, serve as a backdrop. Hidden away, we sit quietly on mismatched folding chairs to hear stories about Hecuba (Rachel Christopher) and Orestes (Jasai Chase Owens) and learn about the origins of the concept of “fake news.” This modern term, we find out, is rooted in Greek mythology.
“I was there. I will tell you everything” is repeated as a refrain throughout. Committed to telling the truth in all the gory details, the messages of each story become “possessed” by the heroes and heroines. Based on texts by Sophocles, Euripedes, Aeschylus, Racine, and Brecht, the ancient news is told from a third-person perspective, but with a first-person passion. Even without the aid of costumes or special makeup effects, one can vividly imagine Oedipus’s eyes dangling out of their bloody sockets, or the terrible death of Glauce by Medea's gift of a poisoned dress.
Script-wise, BAD NEWS! i was there… is a storytelling masterpiece, but unfortunately, because of the proximity of the four “stages” that operate simultaneously, the sound bleed from one space to the next becomes a disadvantage. And while a couple of small altars tucked into corners sparked my curiosity, there was no opportunity to explore them en route. Given the minimal scenic design (also by Julie Archer), these altars seem like an unnecessary distraction. Using a bare theater building as a set, while disallowing traditional seating, is itself simple and effective—such a concept doesn’t need much embellishment.
(BAD NEWS! i was there... plays at NYU Skirball, 566 LaGuardia Place, September 6-8, 2019. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are 9/6 at 7:30, 9/7 at 3 and 7:30, and 9/8 at 3 and 7. Tickets are $40. For more information visit nyuskirball.org).
BAD NEWS! i was there... is created and directed by Joanne Akalaitis, based on texts by Sophocles, Euripedes, Aeschylus, Racine, and Brecht. Original Score by Bruce Odland. Music Director is Ian Axness. Scenic and Costume Design by Julie Archer. Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton. Stage Manager is Dustin Z West.
The cast is Katie Lee Hill, Jenny Ikeda, Rocco Sisto, Kelly Curran, Howard Overshown, Henry Jenkinson, Jasai Chase Owens, and Rachel Christopher. Children are: Jah-Sire Burnside, Devin Coleman, Donovan Coleman, and Riley Velazquez.