In ancient Greece, music, poetry, and masks were all part of the theatrical experience. Will Power's reimagined and remixed edition of Aeschylus' The Seven Against Thebes has it all, though the music is a mixture of hip-hop tracks and spare percussion, the poetry is rapped, and the mask is worn by a character portrayed as a mad luchador.
The update could come off as a cheap gimmick, but Power's work, along with Ten Thousand Things' typically energetic and precise production, uncovers the ancient but still-beating heart of the play. There may be kingdoms, rulers, and battles involved, but The Seven is, at its core, a play about family, brotherhood, and the danger of lost communication.
As in a lot of Greek tragedies, Oedipus is involved. He is deposed and blinded at the play's beginning, but he continues to influence his sons, Eteocles and Polynices. He even goes so far as to lay down a curse on his offspring. To avoid it, the brothers hatch a plan. One will rule for one year, and the other the next.
The Seven Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave., Minneapolis, 800.838.3006; through March 10
Anyone who has seen Antigone, or knows anything about Greek tragedy, knows it isn't going to end happily for the brothers. Jealousy and distrust fester between the two. Their father aids this by dropping in at key moments to give each one a nudge in the wrong direction.
Power's script mixes the ancient tragedy with life in the 'hood. Daddy Oedipus comes across as the crazy man of the neighborhood, driven to bitter hatred by his own failures. The young brothers are full of bravado and swagger, whether it is Eteocles finding that he really, really likes being in control or Polynices adoring his lover, poet Tydeus.
There is also a taste of the innocent Thebans caught in the crossfire. After all, they've already had to deal with plague and an incestuous ruler. Now their lives are on the line because two siblings can't work out their problems. That builds on one of the play's most interesting points. While the Seven — Polynices, Tydeus, and five warriors from around Greece — are presented as a funky Seven Samurai, they are the invaders on someone else's turf. Our sympathies are divided, and there are no real winners here — just survivors.
Director Sarah Rasmussen and a cast of eight produce a show as driving as the soundtrack. There are interludes — every hip-hop album needs its ballads and slower moments — but the drive is always forward.
And as in the best hip hop, there is a sense of play amid the horrors and tragedy. Sly allusions to modern and ancient times are sprinkled throughout, from Oedipus living out of his old Caddie to the different members of the Seven, who range from the aforementioned masked wrestler to a slick braggart who looks a bit like Pitbull (it may be the mirror shades).
Bruce A. Young leads the charge as Oedipus. The character is loaded with rage and a desire to destroy those who follow him, even if they are his own children. It's a role that could easily spiral into hammy melodrama, but Young's portrayal is so fierce that his every word is arresting.
H. Adam Harris's hoarse rap is a bit reminiscent of Brother Ali, while his portrayal of Eteocles has innocence that makes you feel for the character from the get-go. He's not an evil ruler, just a man who got in over his head. By the same token, Kinaundrae Lee's Polynices is a quieter, more artistic soul who still gets locked in a battle that won't have any winners. The two actors bring life to both characters, which makes their ultimate, preordained end all the more tragic.
While the music may be out of the comfort zone of Ten Thousand Things' grayer audience, the power of the message came through loud and clear in The Seven. The play and production's clever mixing of new and very, very old lets us inside the conflicts that have dogged us for millennia and show no signs of stopping.