(With Photo - 'Tantalus')

Denver Center Theatre a 12-hour Greek marathon

By Jim Farber
Copley News Service
       Bungee jumping off bridges, free-climbing sheer rock faces, running marathons, hurtling down some highway on a road luge, or snowboarding into space: These may be your idea of extreme activities, ways of pushing body and mind to the limit.
       But I would challenge any runner, biker, climber, snowboarder or luger to take on the challenge that is "Tantalus" - a 12-hour marathon of Greek theater that explores the intricate web of whys and wherefores, curses and punishments, passions and violence surrounding the Trojan Wars.
       This massive $10 million co-production, involving the Denver Center Theatre and London's Royal Shakespeare Company, may soon appear in pages of the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest play ever presented (in the Western tradition), leaving former contenders such as the RSC's "Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" and Peter Brook's treatment of "The Mahabharata" in the literary dust.
       This nine-play cycle by English playwright and scholar John Barton ("The Hollow Crown" and "The War of the Roses") was some 20 years in the writing, which is twice as long as it took the Greeks to conquer Troy.
       It is a theatrical undertaking that many thought would never be produced. And they probably would have been right, if it hadn't been for Donald Seawell, founder and chairman of the Denver Center Theatre (and a former Broadway producer and executor of the Center's substantial endowment fund) who substantially underwrote the project. It was Seawell, along with Denver Center Theatre's artistic director Donovan Marley, who made it possible to unite the British and American companies under the leadership of director Peter Hall.
       The marathon premiered recently at the Stage Theatre of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, an elegant arena stage, the configuration of which closely resembles that of a classic Greek amphitheater. Not only was this a first-time experience for the audience, which had committed itself to go through the entire cycle in one sitting, it was the first time the actors and technicians had presented the show in consecutive acts; this following 25 weeks of rehearsals.
       Often amazing in the inventiveness and power of its staging (as directed by Hall with assistance from his son, Edward, with sets and costumes by Dionysis Fotopoulos and lighting by Sumio Yoshii), the production features a core of eight actors - four American, four British - who play a multitude of roles. They are accompanied by a 10-member female chorus that made its initial entrance as a bevy of bikini-clad suntan worshipers on a sandy Greek island beach. They, in turn, are supported by an ensemble of nine actors who play soldiers, slaves, etc.
       On the day of the premiere, in an effort to aid those who would be attending "Tantalus," The Denver Post printed a few survival tips, urging would-be patrons to bone up on their Greek myths, suggesting that "a little study helps to follow the story." "Definitely wear comfortable clothes," the writer advised, and drink lots of water, "it's a long time in a theater seat."
       Clearly heeding this advice, water bottles were in abundance as the Prologue to "Tantalus" began shortly after 10 a.m., with a cleverly conceived scene in which lady tourists succumb to the advances of an aged souvenir salesman, who, in his white suit and Panama hat, might be the ghost of Lawrence Durrell. First, the man tries selling them plaster statuettes of the gods. When that fails, he says, with a hint of mystery, that for a fee, he will tell them the most amazing story.
       His story ended more than 12 hours, eight intermissions, with a lunch and dinner break, later. And in that time a large segment of the great tapestry that is Greek mythology was unfolded: The universe was created out of chaos, making way for the birth of Titans and the pantheon of Olympian gods who ruled above the clouds, beneath the waves and in the grottoes of the underworld. And, in turn, the storyteller explained how their rapacious sexual appetites and capricious behavior gave birth to the generations of demigods and mortals.
       Barton's goal in writing "Tantalus," however, was not to retell familiar tales. Instead, the challenge the Cambridge graduate set for himself was to fashion an "Epic Cycle of the Lost Bits" - alternative accounts of events, characters, causes and results surrounding the Trojan Wars, accounts that do not appear in the verses of Homer and those of the Homeric bards who set down "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."
       The title figure, Tantalus, was cursed by the gods for trying to share the secret ambrosia of eternal life with mortal men. His punishment was to be held in the depths of the underworld, forever standing in water that he cannot drink, with fruit just beyond his grasp and a giant rock above his head that might fall at any moment. He is also the great grandfather of Agamemnon and Menelaus (the husband of Helen).
       And while Barton's lyrical (if sometimes pretentious and repetitive text) gives prominence to the familiar characters of the myth, he pays as much, or more, attention to a large group of lesser-known figures, critical players in the events leading to and following the sacking of Troy.
       How many people recall the character of Thetis? She was the immortal sea nymph who was captured and raped by the mortal Peleus, himself a former sacker of Troy. Out of that union came Achilles. But because he was such a nasty infant, who bit his mother's nipples until they bled, she left him to be raised by bears, which accounts for his lack of social skills.
       A list of some of these other lesser-known characters includes Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, who by masquerading as a girl was able to penetrate the Trojan fortifications and free the men who were lying concealed in the belly of the wooden horse. There is Hesione, who was the daughter of King Priam's father, Laomedon, whose kidnapping by Heracles from Troy set the events of the second Trojan war in motion, along with the more familiar cause, the "abduction" of Helen by Paris.
       There's Polymestor and Polyxena, Calchas and Telephus, Hestia and Artemis, and on and on. There are times when this succession of passionate love affairs, devious plots, rapes and murders takes on the aura of a mythological soap opera, a Greek version of "All My Children." There are other times when it is as dry and wordy as a doctoral dissertation. But the one persistent point that Barton drives home is that there is a definite relationship between the lives of the mythological heroes and heroines and the contemporary horrors of our modern world, which is equally ruled by the cause and effect relationship of deeds and choices.
       So, it is no accident that the refugee camp that houses Hecuba and the women of Troy, following the sacking of the city and the brutality they suffer, exactly resembles a refugee camp in the Balkans or Africa or the Middle East.
       "Tantalus" is presented in three sections: "The Outbreak of War," "The War" and "The Homecomings." Each of these sections is then subdivided into three play segments, each of which runs about an hour. Part I: "Prologue," "Telephus" and "Iphigenia." Part II: "Neoptolemus," "Priam" and "Odysseus." Part III: "Cassandra," "Hermione" and "Helen and Epilogue."
       Ever the skilled director, Hall (with his son) creates a succession of scenes that introduces an indelible, remarkably diverse cast of characters, whose identities change as easily as the masks they wear during the course of the performance.
       Among these, it is impossible not to be moved with anger and anguish by Alyssa Bresnahan as the tormented Cassandra, who sees what is to come and tells all, only to be hated, abused and ignored.
       Greg Hicks emerges as the play's most sympathetic warrior, and ultimately its most tragic, Agamemnon. He is a rational man who is condemned to live and die at the hands of an irrational world where humans are the god's playthings. If Hicks' Agamemnon represents the struggle to remain a good man under the worst of circumstances, Robert Petkoff, first as Achilles, and later as his son, Neoptolemus, represents the face of madness and irrational blood lust, along with the pragmatic soldier, Odysseus (Alan Dobie).
       David Ryall, a seasoned British character actor (and longtime member of the National Theatre), plays the role of the storyteller with a perfect combination of reverence and tongue-in-cheek humor.
       During the numerous intermissions and meal breaks, the conversation was animated.
       "Does it work? Why doesn't it work? Did you stay awake?" and "Who was so and so?" were the most common questions. There was also a debate as to whether drinking wine with lunch was such a good idea. Ultimately, stimulants - sugar and caffeine - were judged more necessary for survival.
       By the beginning of the final play, everyone was tired and more than a little testy.
       But the coup de grace was delivered by Barton himself. In the conclusion, which deals with "The Trial of Helen" at Delphi, (some seven years after the end of the war), Helen presents a most unusual defense, claiming that she never actually was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, rather that the gods whisked her away to Egypt, where she remained for the entire period of the war. It was an airy fabrication, a replica, who went in her place.
       If that were true, Barton seems to be saying, then how can the gods be worthy of respect, let alone worship? How could they let so many men and women die for nothing? And as the saga ends, back on the beach where it began, the storyteller essentially says that it was ultimately disrespect for the residents of Mount Olympus that brought about the death of gods.
       There is a uniqueness to the marathon theatrical experience that is unlike any other, because the audience is taken on such a substantial journey. But when one finally comes to the end of the "Tantalus" odyssey, the feelings are vague and ultimately unsettling, possibly by design. There is certainly none of the warmth and comradeship that were so much a part of "Nicholas Nickleby," or the aura of immense spirituality that were omnipresent in "The Mahabharata." Perhaps the reason, just as Barton says, is that "Tantalus" is an epic of missing bits. And even after 12 hours, these bits are not enough.
       From Denver, "Tantalus" will travel to England, and then, if funding can be raised, to Greece. It is quite possible that this will be the only time the entire epic is presented in the United States. Like the gods, it's flawed. But like the gods, it has the power to amaze.

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(With Photo - Johann Sebastian Bach)

Bach's Mass in B minor a gift to the world

By Gary A. Panetta
Copley News Service
       Johann Sebastian Bach once referred to them as a "trifling product" - portions of music he had written toward the end of his life for the weekly church service that Roman Catholics call Sunday Mass.
       But there's nothing trifling about those initial compositions or about the much longer work they eventually became a part of, a work that has come down to us as Bach's Mass in B minor.
       Even among Bach's many monumental works, this musical setting of the traditional Catholic Latin Mass stands as his magnum opus - a gripping, thrilling, profound piece of sacred chorale-orchestral music that has more than a little of the spirit of the great cathedrals and great spiritual ages about it.
       But for Laura Lane, the music director for the Nova Singers, the piece is more than Bach's magnum opus. It's nothing less than Bach's gift to the world.
       "I really think he was looking into the future," Lane said. "He was thinking, 'A hundred years from now, 200 years from now, I want to leave something that will appeal to lots of people. That people will look back and study this piece and do this piece and say, 'Wow, this is Bach.'"
       Born on March 21, 1685, at Eisenach, Thuringia, in Germany, Bach was a descendant of a long line of musicians. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a string player employed by the ducal court of Eisenach and by the town council. His great-great-grandfather, Veit Bach, a Lutheran baker, used to take his cittern (a guitarlike instrument) to the local mill and pick out notes as he waited for the grinding to finish.
       "A pretty noise they must have made together," Bach later wrote. "However, he learnt to keep time, and this apparently was the beginning of music in our family."
       Orphaned at 9, Bach fell to the care of his older brother, Johann Christoph, a church organist who gave the youth his first keyboard lessons. A few years later, Bach went on to earn money by singing in a choir of poor boys. At 18, he found himself appointed as church organist at Neukirche in Arnstadt, a town near his birthplace.
       More appointments followed - a court organist in Weimar, as court conductor for the prince of Cothen and finally as a director of music of Leipzig's St. Thomas Church. Music was as much craft as art in those days. Composers were expected to grind out pieces regularly for use on specific occasions. This constant deadline pressure by no means prevented Bach from creating works of genius. But his monumental Mass in B minor, which he began composing some time around 1733, was different.
       "It's the traditional Catholic Mass text, which was very unusual for Bach because he was Lutheran," Lane said. "Most of what he composed was specific pieces for the Lutheran church services. He would write a cantata in German based on the sermon of the day, specifically for this Sunday's service. He'd write it that Monday and rehearse it and put it on that Sunday.
       "What was very unusual about (the Mass in B minor) was that in the last 10 years of his life as a very old man he decided to write something he knew would not be performed in his lifetime. He never heard this piece performed. It was not for the Lutheran church. In fact, it was too big, too massive to be performed at that time. People were not in the habit of putting on big chorale orchestral works.
       "So he wrote this for posterity. What he was doing was spending some time at the end of his life pulling together examples of his life's work in vocal music."
       Bach chose the Catholic Mass for two reasons: its form and language, both of which lent his music an air of universality, according to Lane. The Catholic liturgy is among the most ancient of the Christian churches, a basic worship pattern later denominations would alter and re-shape. Latin, meanwhile, was for centuries the unifying language of empire, scholarship and theology.
       Anyone who has attended a traditional Latin Mass - or even its contemporary form in English - will recognize the basic divisions of Bach's music. The first section is a prayer for mercy called the "Kyrie," which means "Lord" in Greek. (This is the only part of the Latin Mass in Greek.) The term comes from the two short, simple prayers repeated throughout this roughly 20-minute section: "Kyrie eleison" ("Lord have mercy") and "Christe eleison" ("Christ have mercy").
       The next section is the "Gloria." Here a five-part chorus accompanied by trumpets sings in Latin a hymn of praise. In English it reads: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on Earth ... " Three final divisions follow: the Credo, in which the Church's beliefs are outlined; the Sanctus, a hymn of praise; and the Agnus Dei, a prayer which begins in English as "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world ... " The last words of this prayer "Dona nobis pacem" - "Grant us your peace" - conclude Bach's music.
       Bach did not merely follow this broad framework, however. He also shaped it in subtle ways that pay repeated study.
       "There's so much meaning and expression in the music at every level," Lane said. "The overall structure has a definite shape. Down to the tiniest little detail which is deeply expressive of the word (being sung) and yet also the meaning of the whole movement it happens to be in."
       Some of these details can only be gleaned by examining the score itself. The keys of each movement, for example, when written out on a staff create a melody that's the same backward and forward, Lane said. And in the Credo, where the crucifixion of Christ is mentioned, Bach has arranged the notes on the page in such a way that if lines are drawn through them, crosses are formed. The Credo section is significant in other ways, too, Lane said.
       The nine movements that make up the credo fall into three related groups, a reference to the Trinity. Each movement in turn echoes and contrasts with the other movements, the last three referring back to the earlier three. And in the same way the Credo comes roughly in the center of the Mass, the statements of belief regarding Christ's birth, death and resurrection come at the center of the Credo. And that's fitting, Lane said, since these three statements make up the core of Roman Catholicism and Christianity in general. Bach chose his best music making for them.
       "Right in the center are these movements that are absolutely, stunningly beautiful," Lane said. "The first two of them are so deeply expressive of their texts. The 'Et incarnatus est' ('And was made flesh ... ') about the Incarnation has the cross symbol going on the accompaniment. It has descending, very sad lines in the chorus that overlap very slowly. And it has the pulsating accompaniment that repeats.
       "And the second movement is slightly slower, and even more grief-stricken, if you can say that, because it's the crucifixion. He uses a lamento bass. It's an ostinato - a repeating pattern in the bass part - that goes down by half steps. It repeats every six bars and the chorus sings above it. It's so harmonically complex. The chords are changing in such unusual, difficult, dissonant, chromatic ways, that it's really beautiful and painful.
       "And then at the end of it, the chorus goes down lower and lower and lower, until they're singing the lowest notes they can physically do in the last part of the text that says 'et sepultus est' or 'and was buried.' So (Bach) 'buries' the chorus. They actually, literally go down in to the depths of their voices and so does the orchestra - way down."
       Next comes a surprising change of keys, one that makes the burial sound more like a resting place or a setting of stage for what follows: Christ's triumphant resurrection and ascension into heaven, signified by a full orchestra, a brighter key, quickening tempos and dramatically rising melodic lines.
       The Catholic Mass had been set to music before Bach. But none of them quite have the soul-shaking depths of Bach's Mass in B minor. In a way, he started a tradition: Since Bach, many major composers have wanted to emulate the great German master and write a Mass of their own. None of them, however, quite plumbs the same spiritual depths as Bach's masterpiece.
       "It's something all chorale conductors aspire to do once in their lives," Lane said. "It's kind of like the Brahms Requiem, the Mozart Requiem or the Verdi Requiem. ... It's not only a great chorale work. Some people would say it may be the greatest chorale work ever written."

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(With Photo - 'In the Garden')

Bug-eyed over Keane art

By Robert L. Pincus
Copley News Service
       LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. - It may not be among the proudest cultural achievements of the 20th century, but it has to be on the list of defining characteristics: the widespread love affair with the bad. As in: pulp fiction, cheesy music, hackneyed painting and it's so-awful-we-love-it design in everything from furniture to clothes to collectibles.
       Fads of the bad come and go, like glossy, slice-of-tree-trunk coffee tables, leisure suits, and even (may they soon become a thing of the past) Beanie Babies. Amusingly awful television shows, such as "Gilligan's Island," can enjoy eternal life in reruns. Widely available kitsch, like paint-by-number sets, turns scarce and then becomes a collectible.
       Perhaps you thought that those once-famous paintings of children with eyes far too large for their faces, simply signed Keane, had been relegated to the thrift shop or the garage sale. After all, their days in the sun were in the '50s and '60s.
       Your chances of finding one in either setting are slim to none. Such collectors as the acclaimed singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet and zine publisher and painter Megan Besmirched have already snapped them up and lent several works each to the Laguna Museum of Art, where the exhibition "Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia" is on view.
       The paintings are awful, wonderfully awful, and the show is fascinating - on more than one level. The exhibition is curated by Tyler Stallings, who is also responsible for the brilliant and funny solo exhibition by Sandow Birk running concurrently at the Laguna Museum: "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias."
       Stallings' Keane show raises a question that goes to the heart of an art museum's mission: Why should a reputable venue devote space to bad art?
       For one thing, there are different kinds of awful and the show raises this issue with style. For another, in a culture fascinated by the bad, bad art has influence. The impact, back when and now, is clearly laid out and makes this show as much cultural history as art history.THE APPEAL OF THE AWFUL
       Keane's paintings show us that some kinds of awful art are more fascinating than others. Consider the landscape painter or vapid abstractionist whose picture hung in your hotel room on one trip or another, and whose name you will never remember. That "artist's" work is just boringly bad; you probably can't even remember what it looks like. But Margaret Keane's paintings are unforgettable, because they are so boldly and amazingly awful. If you came upon one in a hotel room, you'd likely either change rooms immediately or find yourself staring at it.
       The children in Keane's paintings (usually girls) stare back at us and what gazes they possess! The biggest part of their faces is taken up with the eyes, which are dominated by the pupils. These deep, dark liquid pools make her children look intensely needy, mournful and sometimes pathetic, as if they are unloved and yearn for us to embrace them.
       "Steep Climb" (1962) is quintessential Keane. There is the hackneyed metaphor of the stairway as a symbol of the subject's difficult future. She pauses long enough in her climb to stare at us. If she didn't, this wouldn't be a Keane. And just in case we don't feel enough sympathy for her, there's a black kitten (a stray, like the girl?) whose stare is just as sad.
       "I was as unhappy as the children I painted," wrote Keane in 1975. Reading the narrative of her life - available for perusal online at - you don't doubt these words.
       Knowing how sincere Keane was - and continues to be - as an artist can make one feel guilty about disparaging her paintings. After all, her pictures just want to make us aware of how some children suffer; how they feel estranged from the adult world. For instance, the rich palette of the flowers in the exhibited "In the Garden" (1963), which surround a girl in a yellow dress, only heighten our awareness of her intense, oversized gaze and troubled expression.
       But one can't feel too guilty, because her paintings emotionally bully the viewer. One possible reason for their immense popularity in the '50s and '60s: People felt guilty if they didn't like them - and still do. A viewer can't turn his back on a needy child - even if it's just a fictional one. Covertly, her paintings say to us: I dare you not to like me.
       And like them people did. Such celebrities as Jerry Lewis, Joan Crawford and Natalie Wood bought originals and commissioned portraits. The giant-eyed waifs were reproduced by the thousands and even supermarkets carried posters.
       The show is rife with spinoffs from Keanemania, like the 1965 Hasbro doll "Little Miss No Name," who like many a child from the paintings had a tear dripping from one eye. There are mostly one-name painters in the section labeled "Other Big-Eyed Masters" - artists like Eve, Lee and Gig. None rival the master, but Gig took the pathetic aspect of the big eyes to a new extreme with such plastic and ceramic figurines as "Pity Kitty" and "Pity Puppy," also from 1965. (The kitty and puppy were available as deodorizers for the car, too.)
       No one suspected that Margaret Keane, who painted all the commissioned portraits, also invented the trademark big eyes. Her second husband, Walter Keane, claimed that he painted them and, during the '50 and '60s, she didn't deny it. After a painful divorce, a self-imposed exit from her art career in Hawaii that began in 1965 and a conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith, she was ready to claim the mantle of Big-Eyed Master. His contribution, it seems, was the marketing savvy to gain them a wide following.

       There has never been a controversy over attribution that had its resolution in an event quite like the highly publicized Keane "event." In 1970, there was the first of two paint-outs. Walter didn't show for the first duel. The second, in 1986, was part of a trial to determine authorship of the paintings. He refused to take paint to canvas, claiming injury to his shoulder.
       The painting she made in court is in the exhibition and on the cover of the exhibition catalog. It's called (what else) "Court Painting." A little girl, eyes of characteristically epic size, peers over a the top of a desk or table. It's probably not coincidental that, given the place where the picture was made, it evokes the image of a child approaching the bench, begging silently for justice.
       Keane's art has remained true to form in the years since she was found to be the true mother of these children. That is to say the eyes have remained as disproportionally big as ever. But a happier Keane yields some happier children.
       In a statement picture of the 1990s, "Love Makes a World of Difference," there are joyous faces on the right and sad ones on the left, positioned on either side of a vertical border. The smiling ones - the loved ones - live in a world that is brightly sunlit, full of blooming flowers, frolic and festive hot-air balloons. The sad crowd exists in a place where buildings are stark and the gray skies contain pale, deathly faces. The basic sentiments of the picture are noble. Who doesn't think all children deserve happiness and love?
       But it's impossible to ignore the major visual facet of this and every Keane painting of children: They're plain weird. They look as much like otherworldly beings as little humans. (Even Spielberg's E.T. reveals traces of the Keane eyes.)
       The painters in the "Inspired Contemporary Artists" of the exhibition have obviously picked up on this curious, often creepy aspect of her pictures. Dave Burke makes explicit the Gothic undercurrent in Keane's images with his paintings, mostly in browns, of grotesque big-eyed creatures, like the familiar guy in "Freakenstein" (1998), who holds a two-headed, Keane-indebted kitty.
       Mark Ryden borrows his wonderful technique from Flemish Old Masters, but the eyes belong to Keane in "Their Sympathetic Majesties Request" (1997). In a sendup of the cover picture for the Stones' "Their Satanic Majesties Request," the devil, a big bunny and a row of dolls all have the bulging apertures. In a little painting on wood, "Liddle Lisa" (2000), Lisa Petrucci turns the tables, by transforming the Keanelike child into an artist who paints women.
       Of course there's a heavy dose of irony in these homages, a kind of love-hate relationship to the Big-Eyed Master. Tim Burton, with the sharp eye for the comically grotesque he reveals in "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands," would be sure to catch the same in Keane. He recently commissioned her to do a painting of his fiancee and their dog Poppy.
       But there seems to be only straight-faced admiration for Keane and her art in a feature in last year's New York Times Magazine. She was commissioned by the publication to do paintings of models in new dresses by leading designers.
       Is the curator Tyler Stallings winking as much as young artists or Burton seem to be? Hard to say from his introduction to the catalog. Working with the artist, he may have wanted to be a bit coy. But this was a show waiting to be done and "Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia" is skillfully curated.
       It says something about our culture that Keane's art is flourishing again and an art world that saw the rise of the "pathetic aesthetic" in work like Mike Kelley's stuffed animal sculptures a decade ago isn't as quick to deride her. Keane's influence reaches much beyond the art world, too. Just look at the eyes on the trio of little heroines in the Cartoon Network series, "The Powerpuff Girls." And just in case you miss the influence, their kindergarten teacher's name is Miss Keane.

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