Los Angeles Theater Review: HERCULES FURENS (THE MADNESS OF HERCULES) (Not Man Apart at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica)

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by Tony Frankel on June 11, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE FRUSTRATING LABORS OF A FASCINATING COMPANY

It is said that Roman Philosopher and Playwright Seneca’s Hercules Furens (c. 54 CE) was never produced but only read in Seneca’s lifetime. Scholars hold that it most likely may have been written to be read and studied rather than performed on a stage. The physical theatre ensemble Not Man Apart (NMA) was commissioned in 2011 by The Getty Villa to adapt and stage this rara avis of the theater, and now offers the fully completed version which both highlights why this is such an exciting ensemble and why the play is rarely produced. Clearly based on Euripides’ The Madness of Heracles, Seneca’s Roman tragedy is a dramaturgical mess, a strange blend of rhetoric, philosophy, psychology, and exaggeration. It also manipulates time inconsistently; some scenes are in real time while others convey a huge amount of passing time and action.

Tony Frankels' Stage and Cinema LA review of Not Man Apart's HERCULES FURENSDirector, adapter, co-choreographer, and co-sound designer John Farmanesh-Bocca (who also plays Hercules) tries to remedy this by adding NMA’s extraordinary vision of movement, stylization, and technical design, but his work, which opened at Miles Memorial Playhouse last weekend, ultimately suffers from a lack of cohesive style and narrative.

The play tells the legend of Hercules, the half-mortal son of the God Jupiter, who abandons his wife, Megara, in Thebes so he can go off and kill a bunch of chimerical beasts. If he completes these “labors,” he will be granted immortality. During his absence, Thebes is usurped by Lycus, who wants Megara for his own. She tells him she’d rather die. Upon Hercules’ triumphant return, he slays Lycus (offstage). He is then bestowed temporary insanity by the Goddess Juno, Jupiter’s wife, a jealous shrew who is determined to destroy the conquering hero. Hercules’ madness causes him to murder his own wife and children.

The first twenty minutes are as thrilling as theater can get. Dance replaces dialogue from the start, displaying the rise of Hercules. The all-male Greek chorus is made up of the powerful and astoundingly adroit trifecta of Noel Arthur, Eric Dyrhsen, and Jones Welsh. The stimulating movement (co-choreographed by Welsh and the ensemble) is a unique mash-up of acrobatics, gymnastics, ballet, and Charles Atlas’ Dynamic Tension. The technical elements are superb, including Jessica Kohn’s lighting, Allison Leach & Rachel Engstrom’s costumes, and co-designer Adam Phalen’s evocative sound.

Tony Frankels' Stage and Cinema LA review of Not Man Apart's HERCULES FURENSHowever, the scenes are given differing presentational styles and do not effectively blend. Hence, the 65-minute work soon degenerates into an unconvincing, disparate muddle. One scene will have Juno (Natacha Roi) deliver a long monologue with little movement, another displays Hercules’ exploits as a classically executed mini dance piece with dialogue, and another is jarringly anachronistic, with Lycus (Randolph Rand) portrayed like John Stewart (a device which may have worked better if the spectator had been given a clue early on that this would occur). Particularly strange is the scene in which Hercules’ human father (Apollo Dukakis) watches his son savagely murder his wife (Courtney Munch) and children, but does nothing to stop him – instead he calls to the Gods to stop the insanity.

Farmanesh-Bocca displays such scorching vulnerability near the end that it’s a shame the play has lost us by then. Alina Bolshakova and Devon Dionne are the slinky, sexy Nymphs of Juno, and Catherine Galanti and Harrison Bliss have a lovely scene where they play with their father, Hercules, in his imagination.

Pericles Redux (2009) was a stunning introduction to the work of NMA, but their Titus Redux (2010 – reviewed here) – which also began with fascinating theatricality like Hercules Furens – was equally hampered by the fragmentary nature of the work. Ultimately, Hercules comes off like any given style-over-substance Fringe Festival entry, but one that has a lot of grant money. I still believe that Not Man Apart is on to something truly exciting, and I look forward to the day when their storytelling becomes as engaging as their innovative techniques.

Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules)
Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble
Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., in Santa Monica
scheduled to end on June 23, 2013
for tickets, call 818-618-4772 or visit http://www.NotManApart.com

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