The conventions, restrictions, and subject matter of classical Greek tragedy result in a wealth of textually rich, often unbelievably gory, sometimes heart-wrenching messenger speeches recounting the many deaths and disasters that could not be depicted on stage. Celebrated avant-garde theatre director JoAnne Akalaitis mines this literary goldmine for BAD NEWS! i was there…, an assemblage of passages from Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Racine, and Aeschylus in translations by Bertolt Brecht, Ezra Pound, William Arrowsmith, Nicholas Rudall, W.B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Paul Schmidt, Ellen McLaughlin, Caryl Churchill, and Anne Carson, whose verses also appear in song.
The idea for BAD NEWS! came to Akalaitis either “[f]rom the gods” or from something buried in her “from undergraduate days.” The production does feel very much like an undergraduate final project—deserving of an A, but a little too well-behaved and a little too over-burdened with pointless additions that attempt to break with traditional performance, yet fall into another kind of conventionality.
Described as “a site-specific processional performance,” the audience is divided into four groups and led through the NYU Skirball Center’s lobby, hallways, backstage, and partial onstage areas by patient “audience guides” who pick up a choral refrain of the many victims of Greek tragedy to signal when it is time to move to the next scene. At each new location, two performers, accompanied by one singing child, take on the messenger speeches from two paired tragedies, with occasional lecture-like interjections. The performers, like the guides, are attired in standard street clothes and high-visibility vests.
BAD NEWS! i was there… is a missed opportunity that oversells itself. Despite the creative caliber of the artists involved, it is not especially moving or adventurous. Nor is it truly site-specific: the production neither uses the spaces for what they are, nor attempts to find spaces that work for the text. The messenger of the Bacchae did not describe delirious Agave tearing her son limb to limb in any location resembling the side balcony seating of an auditorium. Similarly, although the caution tape cordoning off the usual audience seating and the high-visibility vests evoke tragedy and disaster, these elements tell a different story. The bad news of Greek drama is of suicides, sacrifices, and war, not building collapses, and the news is delivered by emotional eyewitnesses, not professionals charged with managing a crowd and staying calm and neutral. The processional structure doesn’t really offer a “unique” audience experience, just a different sequence of plays that has no bearing on how the audience absorbs the information.
The English texts are interwoven with Greek, Latin, German, and French—why? The main result was that when I did recognize the language, I was embarrassingly aware of an actor making the right sounds without any real comprehension. The audience is encouraged to note down their own “bad news” and deposit it in drop boxes around the theatre—why? It’s a trendy idea with little real added interest or relevance. The use of oratorio could be justified in recalling Ancient Greek performance traditions, but historicism is surely not the goal of BAD NEWS!. Recitative is hard to pull-off even in an opera and here it is often vaguely awkward and distancing. The actors sometimes read from a page (they’re all seasoned performers and clearly off-book)—why? The promised connection to media reports doesn’t emerge aside from a quick mention of the ubiquitous “fake news” and the calm incantations distance each piece from the frenetic despair of tragedy or any sense of contemporary resonance.
The greatest loss in BAD NEWS! amidst all these conceptual add-ons (no literal bells and whistles, but plenty of chimes) is the potential affective impact. Speeches that describe, in glorious poetry, “a sight made for tears” should indeed prompt those tears, but the emotional core is lost. Some lines do ring out with greater pathos, particularly from those performers more connected to the messy, painful humanity encapsulated by the poetry. Oedipus & Antigone (Henry Jenkinson and Howard Overshown) and Orestes & Hecuba (Jasai Chase Owens and Rachel Christopher) are the most successful in this respect, possibly because their segments were best set up to resemble scenes. Other actors would have been better served in a staged reading (a format suggested, in any case, by the largely static blocking and presence of music stands). Rocco Sisto, for instance, captures some of the visceral drama of The Bacchae in his speech but the illustrative miming from Kelley Curran only distracts.
I would be very happy to see the majority of these performers in full productions of these plays, but they seem overdirected here, missing some spark of creative autonomy and confined instead to conceptual tropes and meticulous timing. BAD NEWS! i was there… would not be so frustrating if it didn’t have such gold to work with: the words of great playwrights, often translated by equally great writers, accomplished actors as well as willing early-career performers, the support of the Skirball Center, and a director known for breaking boundaries. “I was there, and I will tell you everything”—the refrain repeated throughout the performance—does reach at a compelling idea, but never manifests into anything more exciting than that.