Chicago's Sideshow Theatre presents a spin on the classics

Greek tragedy downtown

08/29/2012 10:00 PM

Contributing Writer

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Fans of ancient Greek literature and theater know its players well.

Agamemnon, Jason and his Argonauts, Odysseus, Oedipus, Medea and other characters fought, suffered, loved, and lost while scores of gods watched and guided their actions from atop Mount Olympus.

The exploits provided perfect fodder for Euripedes, Aeschylus, Homer and other Greek playwrights and poets, who elevated the legends to grand tragedies with all-encompassing themes that changed the way mankind approached storytelling, theater, and communication. And they’re entertaining to boot — tales of bloodshed, seduction, pain and joy that are as riveting as anything produced by contemporary artists.

Idomeneus is a lesser character amongst the classic Greeks, but his story is no less amazing.

As told by Homer in The Iliad, the Cretan King led armies during the great Trojan War and served as one of King Agamemnon’s most trusted advisors. He was one of many warriors to spring from the belly of the famed Trojan Horse and take the city of Troy. Idomeneus’ tale was furthered by other writers, who followed him on his arduous and ultimately tragic journey home and beyond.

Idomeneus, a play being staged by Sideshow Theatre Company at the DCA Theater downtown, is an elaboration on this later portion of the Cretan’s life. Penned by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated into English by David Tushingham, and directed by Jonathan L. Green, it is an interesting amalgamation of styles — a classical story presented in a contemporary setting and form by a cast dressed in stereotypical hipster garb. And it works.

The play begins with the hero lost at sea during his ten-year journey home from the Trojan War. When a storm devastates his ship and threatens to kill him and his men, Idomeneus makes a deal with the gods — if they spare his life, he will kill the first thing that he encounters upon setting foot on his homeland. The gods agree. Idomeneus never imagined that his own son would be the first to greet him after washing on Crete’s shores safely, of course.

A cycle of infanticide, patricide, adultery, hubris, guilt, and more human and inhuman tragedies ensues. And doesn’t. Schimmelpfennig’s play allows scenarios to play out, only to be immediately retracted and told again in a screwed Rashomon-like manner.

Idomeneus killed his son. No, he didn’t.

Idomeneus was exiled from Crete after bringing a plague upon the island. Wait. No, he wasn’t.

Idomeneus was killed by Nauplius, the Argonaut who seduced Idomeneus’ wife to avenge his son’s death at Odysseus’ hands. Or not.

The back-and-forth and uncertainty keep the play fresh and the audience on their toes. It’s necessary, since Idomeneus’ presentation can prove taxing, at times.

The play uses a variation of the classical Greek chorus, with the cast of 15 speaking in unison to detail the unfolding action. Dialogue between individual characters is often voiced by multiple players, as well. The effort is valiant, but not entirely successful.

Many of the voices don’t mesh well together, creating a jarring auditory experience. However, when the voices blend perfectly, as they do between the two actors portraying the chimera monster sent to kill Idomeneus (or not), the effect is chilling.

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