“ SEVENTY SCENES OF HALLOWEEN ” by Alien Stage Project at Ensemble Arts Theatre & “ SEVEN AGAINST THEBES ” at SDSU
KPBS AIRDATE: October 29, 1997
If you want to do something really spooky this weekend, go to the theater. Spend ninety harrowing minutes with the nightmarish numbers 7 and 70. That is, “7 Against Thebes” at SDSU and “Seventy Scenes of Halloween,” presented by the Alien Stage Project. Ancient and modern phantasmagoria. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“Seventy Scenes of Halloween” delivers on its titular promise. Some scenes last only a second, but they can pack a whallop — or leave you wincing, scratching your head, or wide-eyed in wonder. Jeffrey Jones wrote the black comedy in 1980, but it might as well be a close-of-the-century commentary.
It’s Halloween night, and Jeff and Joan are at home watching TV. The television is the primary, if not the sole focus of their attention. They don’t listen to or hear each other. Intermittently, their fears and demons and ugliest fantasies make three-dimensional appearances.
This is your basic TV-watching marathon interrupted by a relationship. Toss into the brew an unconfessed affair, a hatred of trick-or-treating children, a feeling of imprisonment after nine years in a relationship, knife-wielding, assault and battery, and raw-chicken threats. There are eerie noises, blood-curdling screams, and a witch and a beast interchangeable with Jeff and Joan.
In the playwright’s notes, the 70 scenes are also interchangeable, so different arrangements create different “stories” with different “meanings.”
As directed by Karin Williams, there’s less humor than dysfunctionality in the piece. When the capable cast plays it straight, the play is unnerving and disturbing. But when Williams pushes them into more absurd delivery, the dark, dark humor hits its mark. This show isn’t for the casual theatergoer; it’s often baffling, sometimes annoying. But if the grotesquerie of relationships strikes terror in your heart, this may be the Halloween treat for you.
Now, if you don’t want to work at disentangling text or intent, maybe “7 Against Thebes” will be too tricky for you this Halloween. This is far from a straightforward telling of Aeschylus’ tragedy concerning the ill-fated Oedipus and his doomed-to-destruction family. In the original story, written in 467 B.C.E, the sons of Oedipus are fighting for the throne of Thebes. At each of the seven gates of the city, a general is stationed, a battle is fought. At the very last gate, the brothers meet in mortal combat.
In SDSU’s updated incarnation, most of the action takes place in Sarajevo, where, in 1993, we’re told, a missile destroyed a residential building and five people were buried alive. Their last wish was scrawled on the walls with a burnt stick. “If you find our bodies,” it read, “perform an autopsy. Check them for a gene of war.”
The gene of war is the unifying metaphor for this experimental production, directed by Kris Salata. Polish-born Salata is exploring, with a vengeance, this persistent theme of senseless murder and civil war. The audience follows the action from the lobby of the Don Powell Theatre to its stage and finally, to seats in the Experimental Theatre. It’s hard to know when to move on and when to leave the theater; the logistics aren’t fully worked out. But he production is fabulous to look at; Salata clearly has a vision, and his stage pictures are often astonishing. He is playing with ideas and imagery, time and politics. He is stretching the text and the medium, and for that he should be roundly applauded. His cast labors hard (though they unfortunately don’t get to take bows). The notion of brother against brother, and the inexorable advance of war, is vividly, physically, violently conveyed.
Salata is definitely someone to watch. But in the end, his production grows tiresome, screamy and relentless. It’s a long 90 minutes, and the audience comes away feeling as battered as the poor characters. Enter at your own risk.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.