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Nothing’s so galvanizing to a theater junkie as a poet drunk with rage. In Greek, a stylized modern epic that’s both blistering rant and ecstatic hymn, the inspired British bile-spitter Steven Berkoff is operating, justifiably, at well above the legal limitand SCENA Theatre’s production at the all but derelict Studio 1019 warehouse space is a raw guerrilla gem, seething with anger and energy but never forgoing style.
Berkoff’s 1980 script is a bitterly prophetic, perversely funny reassessment of the Oedipus myth set in a Britain so desperately core-rotten as to make patricide and incest relative trifles. His narrator is Eddy, an ironic, disenchanted descendant of Sophocles’ tragic hero “spawned in Tufnell Park, no more than a stone’s throw from the Angel, a monkey’s fart from Tottenham, or a bolt of phlegm from Stamford Hill.” Mother’s a sentimental drudge, father a mewling racist exemplar of his (working) class, and around them the denizens of “this drab of gray, this septic isle” stumble blind and drunken into the gutters, “afraid to stroke each other’s loins lest new laws against the spreading of the plague outlaw them.”
This is 1980, mind you, so Berkoff’s plague is not specifically AIDS, though his seems a bracingly prescient kind of fury. Instead, the contagions he targets are indifference, narrow-minded hatred, self-satisfaction, complacency amid social collapse, and a culture that worships the pound and the past but hasn’t a whit of real faith in anything. He’s a prodigiously accomplished writer, as assured with the stride and echo of formal verse structure as with the hollow clang and thump of Cockney vernacular, and his weapons are wordsbanalities, crude images, and the most vulgar oaths marshaled in bristling, offensive array alongside crystalline poetry and hallucinatory metaphorical rhapsodiesan arsenal of ideas as explosive and vital as the pair of literally basic, essential words he keeps circling back to: “cunt” and “spunk.”
Both words are deployed often enough to lose their immediate shock value, but there is enough visceral imagery surrounding them. Eddy, informed of a carnival gypsy’s prophecy by his timid father, leaves home for London and capitalist triumph in a first-person narrative that separates event from event with long, acid-edged soliloquies on soccer yobs, Irish terrorists and the English patriots who loathe them, the comfortable, corrupt Establishment, and “the familiar trappings that have trapped us.”
Eddy (Christopher Henley) is no guiltless hero, of course: He is bound (though not entirely, as it turns out) by prophecy and fate, and his first step toward successa literal war of words in which he unknowingly kills his natural father and seduces his motheris grounded in selfishness and a tendency to violence that he condemns in others. But if his language is jaundiced, his vision isn’t, and he begins setting things right, offering succor to the populace (he builds a diner into a chain of restaurants) and confronting the Sphinx (a contemptuous bundle of metaphorical terrors, deliciously inhabited here by Kerry Waters) that has immobilized the capital. When the prophecy comes home to roost, he’s shaken, wondering momentarily if he’s been part of the problem all along. But no, he decides: “Bollocks to all that.” Old taboos don’t have to hold when the world has already been upended.
Berkoff’s script begs for a stylized production, and SCENA artistic director Robert McNamara delivers one, wrapping Henley in leather trousers and a studded collar, arranging a trio of whitefaced actors around him, moving them all in halting, articulated fashion like so many puppets. They freeze into place as he discourses, lurch out of a pose to speak a line that advances the story, and silently illustrate an action with an outsize gesture. Daniel Schrader’s lighting is imprecise and murky, but then the space imposes severe limitations; Michael Stepowany’s set may be a degree too clever, with its Greek-key railing (echoed in the hem of Alisa Mandel’s costumes), but the blood-red drape and the baleful moon that back the action are effective.
Henley himself is the show, a bundle of sharp, nervous motion, entirely confident with the character’s abrasive style and yet not off-putting. Carter Jahncke and Jewel Orem offer solid support as Eddy’s father and mother/wifeOrem is particularly adept with an exquisite speech describing the tragedy that separated her from the infant Eddyand Waters, reveling gleefully in the Sphinx’s insane show-stopper of a monologue, more than holds her own. All of them handle Berkoff’s rococo language (and even the lowest character speaks in a kind of gutter poetry here) with aplomb and energy.
If nothing elseand there’s so much elsethis energizing evening reminds us that we don’t hear much from SCENA these days. And that’s too bad. Their Greek is two hours of uncompromising, politically charged theater, keen and intelligent and scathing and exhilarating. Pity and tenderness are coupled with the outrage and despair, though, and yes, there is even a leavening of joy in Berkoff’s bleak landscape. It’s an outcry against our myriad inhumanities, but look to the root of the author’s fury at our failings and you’ll find a remnant of an idealist’s wonder at our potential. A tattered, filthy remnant, to be surebut a little wonder means room for a little hope.CP