Recently we went to see a work-in-progress of what is arguably the world’s first “tavern opera.” An enormous amount of effort is going into cultivating this new genre—one of the initiatives for artistic development sponsored by Pivot Arts. The venue, Berger Park mansion, provided a unique showcase for this innovation in artistic form.
The work, Three Graces, is set in Crete in 1889 when ethnic violence raged between Greeks and Turks who might otherwise be peaceful neighbors if it were not for different religions and provocations by the Russians.
It does not as much explicate ethnic cleansing but rather taps into the revulsions we all feel at the senselessness of this human failing, so begging for shortlist on the extinction roster.
We asked Ruth Margraff, the writer and one of the performers in Three Graces more about this artistic initiative. Here is what she shares:
Q: A ‘tavern opera" is a new genre—yes? How would you define it and what are you attempting to create with this new genre of entertainment?
A: “I love how our director Kate Hendrickson defines what we’re doing in her curtain speech: “Three Graces is inspired by Freedom and Death a Nikos Kazantzakis novel set on the Greek island of Crete. The story centers on a Greek leader unsuccessfully trying to rebel against the Turkish Pasha, who rules the village.
“We call Three Graces a Tavern Opera because it is not an opera in the traditional sense: people aren’t singing the entire time. Instead Three Graces takes an amplified, operatic, approach to the story; weaving together voice, music, text, and visual imagery to create a heightened, poetic world.”
“Kate brings such beauty and precision to her direction that I think of what she does as live sculpture moving into oil painting, water color, and then sculpture again – ancient and modern at once.
“She instills in the actors a core truth that has many entry points. The actors have to transfigure constantly so that this rare kind of theater is alive as much as it is artifice.
“I especially love Kate’s use of tying in this piece because it shows how dependent we all are. And the brotherhood of Greek and Turk really comes through. We are tied also to the fate of the grave and thereby the nature of the earth...
“As the real Chicago sun sets in the Berger Park mansion, the music of the tavern fades into shadows like it is full of ghosts and gods as it really is in Greece. “
Q: What drew you to the subject matter of Three Graces?
A: “I read Kazantzakis for the first time when I was on the Island of Crete and remember thinking ‘Wow, I am so American.’
“I wanted to try to write from the point of view of women who were more old world, more Ottoman, and I was seeing this sort of woman all around me still today in Greece. They seem to view things from the wall or slightly outside the action.
“Kazantzakis’ world of Crete seems very macho at first. In the novel the women are minor characters, but have tremendous sway over the actions of the men. I wanted to amplify their impact in my version.
“My most rebellious act is the way I cut into the interiority of the moments of the play emotionally. I suspend time with music and let the more Greek and Turkish time signatures move into the blue places of the voice. This sort of darkness is rare in American theater, but Greeks are used to looking into the face of Charos (Death).
“…The story doesn’t move in a manly, linear forward march. It sweeps up a panorama of emotional landscape. I let the story radiate like fragments of an icon painting peeling from the wood in the island heat. I was also very interested in the idea of failed rebellion because this is not an American ideal. We want stories where our heroes almost fail but win in the end. This is not that kind of story. And I have learned from Kazantzakis that true rebellion has to fail and fail and fail again – in this case for 400 years. “
Q: How has the Pivot Arts organization supported your work?
A: “We worked with Pivot’s new incubator program at Loyola in March, which was just a godsend. It gave us a chance to explore casting, to hear and rehearse the script with a live score.
“Kate and I had worked together on ANGER/FLY last year and this script went even deeper into our exploration of how to stage thick language. Space and time are the premiums we crave to make our work and this was such a gift to have both so near to our homes! “
Q: How has it impacted how and what you have produced so far and where you plan to take the work going forwards?
A: “We wanted to make the piece portable and working in a site specific location really helped us to do think of what can be quickly installed and broken down or packed into a suitcase. We also were able to use many everyday more common objects that might be found locally wherever we go, against the more uncommon handmade instruments that create the music.
“We love the instinct Julieanne Ehre (Director of PIvot Arts) has to strengthen the roots of our own neighborhoods at home even as we continue to share our work more broadly in touring.”
Q: Any other comments to clarify what you are aiming for with Three Graces?
A: “My band CAFÉ ANTARSIAcelebrates the kinship of Ottoman tavern music as very close to Greek blues and Cretan rebel songs. Living in Chicago now, with Nikos Brisco, the composer, coming from Deep Ellum Dallas and my heritage of coal mining hard singing and upright piano churches, we are drawn to seek the world of blues. We try to confound the horizon lines of east and west, rich and poor, Greek and Turk and American in our otherworldly tavern.”
From this work-in-progress I can report that even at this stage the music catches your ear to tell you that you are listening to something new. The instrumentation includes: Cretan Lute, Cretan Lyra, Bazouki (Greek), darbuka (aka dumbek or tabla), finger cymbals, singing bowls, goat hoofs and ankle bells. This instrumentation alone gives it a unique sound.
Opinions on this piece will likely vary, even at later stages of development. What can’t be questioned, however, is that the Pivot Arts initiative is enabling young artists to poke the boundaries of performance in new directions.
Photos: Michal Janicki