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REVIEW: Good News, Bad News, Well… (Guthrie Theater)

JoAnne Akalaitis, the creator of BAD NEWS! i was there.

Director JoAnne Akalaitis had a great idea: compile a dozen Ancient Greek dramas focusing on messenger scenes. She euphemistically calls the work, BAD NEWS! i was there… [sic], a humorous understatement since the messengers are inevitably revealing tragic events in the lives of the main characters – like the king of Thebes stabbing his eyes out, or a mother burning her two children alive to spite their hero father.

Bad News ran at the Guthrie Theater for just two days, as part of a larger national tour. The production was a treat for those who enjoy Classical Greek plays, Greek mythology, and Homer’s Iliad. The script was structured like a reader’s theatre, but it is in the theatrical presentation that Akalaitis took a new, fresh direction. It was especially exciting to hear brief segments actually spoken in Ancient Greek.

The show’s introductory scene engaged an ensemble of eight actors who met the audience in the Guthrie’s first floor foyer. This sounds promising, but was not effective in practice. When performing in a public space, simply shouting lines does not make for drama, and the foyer was too spacious and reverberant.

After the greeting, the audience was separated into four tour groups and lead by guides to a sequence of locations in the Guthrie complex where the classical tragedies were recounted. Each performance location was intimate, with ad hoc lighting. These varied wildly in style and quality; it seemed as if each pair of actors was left to develop their own theatrical approach for their assigned text. For example, Nathaniel Fuller and Eric Sharp, performed excerpts of Oedipus and Antigone in a rather straight-forward manner, seemingly in chronological order and speaking for several characters.

In contrast, Cynthia Jones-Taylor and Emily Gunyou Halaas took a performance art approach in their presentation of excerpts from Medea and Thyestes. (Both tragedies famously feature the deaths of children. In Medea, the title character murders her children to spite the lover who abandoned her; in Thyestes, the title character is unwittingly fed his own children at a feast.) They were the only group to use a microphone to provide variation and to simulate the voice of a news reporter. Medea’s ambivalence talking about the deaths of her sons was particularly unnerving.

Stephen Yoakam and Ann Michels stood out with their presentation of The Bacchae and Phaedra.  Yoakam performed his theatrical monologues as if he wass Thespis, the first Greek actor. He truly showed a grasp of Classical material, as he did with the Homeric poetry in the Guthrie production of An Iliad. His a mastery of monologue performance was marked by varied and nuanced intonation, rhythm, and characterization that shifted several times even in a single sentence.  Ann Michels sang most of her story like a beautiful, wispy operatic aria. Both Yoakam and Michels incorporated effective movement with their vocal work.

There were several ideas that, like the opening, did not work as well in practice as was doubtless planned. For example, the final performance was The Persians in the lobby of the Dowling Studio. This was a conventional reader’s theatre work that could have easily been performed to greater effect in the Dowling Studio itself.

Another idea that didn’t pan out involved collection boxes that were made available throughout the tour for audience members to anonymously write about bad news they have had to personally deal with.  At the end of the performance, a post-show discussion in the Dowling Studio included a call for audience members to volunteer and read some of the contributed notes. It was an interesting idea for community interaction, but had little impact; few people voiced any reaction to the readings.

I had looked forward to the Guthrie production of Bad News and parts of it were outstanding. It was painfully obvious, however, that the performance failed to provide the community catharsis at the heart of Greek tragedy. There was barely a connection between bad news in modern society and the ancient version of bad news.

Dan Reiva