The latest offering by JoAnne Akalaitis, Bad News! i was there… is something of a misnomer, since none of us was there for the “bad news” of the ancient Greeks, which is what Akalaitis focuses on. If the text is cobbled together with passages taken from Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, it can prove pretty tedious and at a far remove. But then, Akalaitis is more known for her spectacles than for her texts.
And if a program note invites us to “share” our own “bad news, before, during or after the performance,” one had better do it before or during: sharing it after might include the experience of seeing the show itself. As one character says, s/he suffers twice–first the experience and then in “telling” it. I can relate by not only having seen Bad News!, but by now having to recall it for the sake of writing about it.
Best known for her avant-garde bent, Akalaitis fits right in at the NYU Skirball, which seems to have more and more of an emphasis on the quirky and the oddball. It begins at once, when you enter the lobby and are herded into one of four different colored groups. The group you’re in will determine where you’re taken in four different locations, behind or around the stage.
Much of the auditorium is roped off with yellow caution tape, referring to “bad news,” indeed, and eight different players–four men and four women–are wearing bright-colored emergency vests. More than 20 years since she led the Public Theater, following Joe Papp’s demise, Akalaitis is up to her stunning visual effects at times.
After assembling into our groups in the lobby, we are escorted into the theater itself by singing ushers. This is when the show really begins, although in the lobby we’re invited to observe various items posted on the walls, including disaster stories in The New York Times and the Daily News. A program note quoting Ezra Pound (“A classic is a classic not because it obeys certain immutable rules… but because it is irrepressibly fresh”) may attempt to make the ancient “bad news” germane to us today, but it all seems distant and far away.
As the eight players recite or sing their bad news at each of the four sites (the original music is by Bruce Odland), we learn about Orestes and Hecuba at one, the Bacchae and Phedre at another, Oedipus and Antigone, and, finally Medea and Thyestes. If anything seems to unite them, it’s the similarities of their tragedies, which is what they all are.
But their stories seem to blur. This is despite the strong effort and work of the eight players: Jenny Ikeda, Katie Lee Hill, the indomitable Rocco Sisto, Kelley Curran, Howard Overshown, Henry Jenkinson, Jasal Chase Owens, and Rachel Christopher. Though one imagines that Akalaitis had more than just a hand in the design elements of the show, Jennifer Tipton is credited with the lighting and Julie Archer with the scenic and costume designs.
Bad News! i was there… (September 6-8, 2019)
NYU Skirball, 566 LaGuardia Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-998-4947 or visit http://www.nyuskirball.org
Running time, one hour and 20 minutes without an intermission