This one hurt, particularly because it was pretty much all my fault. THE GREEKS was a condensation of nine plays by Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, with some Homer thrown in for good measure, that chronicles the fall of Troy and the House of Atreus. Adapted by John Barton and Kenneth Cavander into a three-part mega event it took 35 actors to perform. The Royal Shakespeare Company premiered THE GREEKS in London in 1981 and it was subsequently produced in the United States at Williamstown, Hartford Stage Co., and Seattle’s ACT. None of these productions did particularly well with the critics, but for some reason this didn’t deter me.
We still applied to do it as one of the local productions in the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. The panel turned us down, as it seemed too big a project for the Back Alley to pull off. I’m quoted in an interview as saying that this was like “waving a red flag in front of my face.” I was even more determined to do it. The panel was right of course and the entire multi-year production saga was akin to sinking slowly but inextricably into quicksand. The more we struggled the deeper we sank. Hubris!
It opened finally in 1986 after two directors—Barbara Damashek (Quilters) and Frank Condon (Chicago Conspiracy Trial)– gave up along the way. Our pinch-hit director, Allan, took over. At least half the cast, including Alley Mills, Andrew Parks, Rose Portillo, Arye Gross and Kenny Mars, left at some point in the process. Allan let Barbara Bossom go and he never worked in a Steve Bocho production again.
The fake-rocks set was an expensive disaster, including the realization just before previews that it all had to be fireproofed (one reviewer called it a “Pillsbury refrigerator biscuit setting, which seems to rise after every intermission”). The “fantasy” makeup we commissioned never happened (the actors ending up do their own). We attempted to commission a new instrumental score to be performed live on synthesizer, woodwinds and percussion, but ended up with a score composed and performed by someone else, which this same reviewer called, “excellent and probably unintentionally funny…more like a commercial for Zorba.” What can I say, nothing worked the way it was envisioned.
Sylvie Drake wrote in the LA Times: “It’s clear that what we have is ‘The Greeks Go to Hollywood”—a production so contemporary pedestrian, so lacking in point of view or artistic identity, that when someone asks, ’Did anyone see Ajax?’ one half expects a box of cleanser to appear.” Doug Smith, also writing in the LA Times: “I’m glad they finally killed Agamemnon off.”
Not all the reviews were scathing, some were even not all bad, but a sampling of some of the worst headlines:
“When it comes to ambitious ideas, it’s all ‘Greeks’ to them” (Daily News)
‘Greeks’ fights clock in losing battle with tone” (Star-News)
“’Greeks’ launches a thousand flops” (LA Herald Examiner)
I want to give a shout out to the many incredible actors who stuck it through to the end, including Christine Avila (Cassandra), Fran Bennett (Hecuba), JudyAnn Elder (Andomache), Chris Hendrie, Lonnie Hamerman, Arlene Golonka (playing Helen of Troy!), Jade Hykush (Artmeis), Lynn Lowry (Iphigenia), Lorrie Marlow, SharonLee McLean (Electra), Alden Millikan (Orestes), Lisa Richards (Clytemnestra), Daryl Roach, Albert Paulsen (Agamemnon), Andy Robinson (Achilles), Jeanne Sakata and Al Sapienza, among many others. The actors had T-shirts made that said, “We survived The Greeks,” which they wore with humor and grace.
I still believe that if you’re not failing some of the time, you’re not taking enough risks.