NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl. at at Washington Square South
September 6-8, $40
The good news is that five-time Obie winner JoAnne Akalaitis’s BAD NEWS! I was there . . . is a salient, pertinent, and entertaining work. The bad news is that it’s all too true. Initially workshopped five years ago at Poet’s House and debuting at the Guthrie last year, BAD NEWS! is a clarion call that relates Greek tragedy to what is happening around the world today. The ninety-minute show takes audiences, divided into four groups, through numerous spaces in NYU’s Skirball Center, where it continues through September 8; in each location, two messengers in yellow safety vests with flashlights in the pocket over their heart deliver tales of disaster, murder, catastrophe, suicide, violence, butchery, incest, and war as a young child (Jah-Sire Burnside, Devin Coleman, Donovan Coleman, and Riley Velazquez) sits nearby, reading superhero comic books. The audience is separated from the performers by yellow caution tape, a constant reminder of impending doom. “In death there is nothing but death,” the cast says in unison.
The dialogue and songs (the music is by Bruce Odland), presented in English, Greek, Latin, French, and German, have been adapted from classical literature by Sophocles, Euripedes, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Jean Racine, and Aeschylus, translated by Anne Carson, Bertolt Brecht, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Caryl Churchill, and others. Eight seminal tragic figures are represented: Medea (Katie Lee Hill), Thyestes (Jenny Ikeda), the Bacchae (Rocco Sisto), Phèdre (Kelley Curran), Oedipus (Howard Overshown), Antigone (Henry Jenkinson), Orestes (Jasai Chase Owens), and Hecuba (Rachel Christopher). Guides (Ahsan Ali, Maya Carte, ESJAE, Josh Fulton, ALEXA GRÆ, Chloé Worthington, Isabella Peterson, Milo Longenecker, and Aigner Mizzelle) carry lights as they lead the groups through narrow hallways, up and down stairs, and into various rooms; they also serve as a Greek chorus, singing in unison in the background. Along the way, white sheets with the title of the show written in what looks like blood hover. Curiously, there are not enough chairs to seat everyone at each stop, so if you can stand, let the elderly, infirm, or pregnant sit down.
As you watch one section, you can clearly hear snippets from at least one other part (the first four scenes run concurrently and can be seen in any order), creating a cacophony of bad news, as if you’re being overwhelmed by social media and television reports. (Julie Archer designed the sets and costumes, with lighting by Jennifer Tipton and sound by Odland.) It all culminates in a grand finale that brings all four groups together, making one last stand. Created and directed by Akalaitis, the cofounder of Mabou Mines and former head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, BAD NEWS! is about bearing witness, in the past and the present; it asks us to pay attention to what is going on across the globe and to speak up when we see danger. “I was there and I will tell you everything” is the play’s constant refrain. (For example, when no Holocaust survivors are left on earth, what happens to their stories, especially with so many conspiracy theorists claiming it’s a hoax, and so many people on the internet believing them?) The show is accompanied by a multimedia lobby installation on Greek tragedy, supplemented with articles on the refugee crisis, Donald Trump, neo-Nazis, and other current events, and the audience is asked to write down their own personal bad news on a sheet of paper. After the performance, you’re encouraged to have a free drink, talk about what you just experienced, and read aloud one of the anonymous pieces of bad news. “I speak the truth. All evils are revealed,” one character says early on. The actors are not just delivering tragic news from ancient tales; they’re warning us about today, and tomorrow. And that’s a good thing, if only more people would listen.