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To the classic story of King of Crete, add a 'What if?'

THEATER REVIEW: "Idomeneus" by the Sideshow Theatre Company ★★★

Chris Jones

3:58 PM CDT, August 27, 2012

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You're forgiven if you never heard of the playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig. Although one of Germany's more prolific scribes, he's not much known in these United States. Tricky name, that, when it comes to marquees. You're similarly forgiven if you know not Idomeneus, a figure from mythology who lacks the star wattage of your Agamemnon or your Oedipus.

Still, Idomeneus was King of Crete. He shows up in Book 13 of "Iliad," was one of Helen's suitors (of course, what sailor wasn't?) and led the Cretans into the Trojan War. But, all in all, he's a sideline dude, one of the many Greeks who arrived home from the Trojan War in one piece and thus an apt match for the very self-aware musings of Schimmelpfennig — as distinct from, say, that A-lister Sophocles.

But Idomeneus' story continued after that war. According to later writers, he hit a storm on the way back and promised Poseidon that he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw on shore, if only he and his shipmates' lives would be saved. Poseidon cut the deal. Alas for Idomeneus, the first thing he saw was his own son.

Schimmelpfennig's unusual play, staged for the first time in America by the Sideshow Theatre Company at the Storefront Theatre in the Loop, homes in, really, on what Idomeneus must have been thinking in the moment when he first saw his son: "I really wish I'd not made that promise." And then Schimmelpfennig goes a step further: What if he hadn't?

What makes "Idomeneus" so interesting is that focus on how things would have been different, if different decisions had been made at various key points in all those classic stories. If, like me, you perennially second-guess your own choices, you'll find that inherently interesting. I can create endless permutations in my mind of how better decisions would have changed life's crucial junctures. But it's specifically intriguing to see that filter applied to the characters and events of the classics, because these particular yarns are all so singularly focused on that which is unchangeable. In other words, these traditional plays are about how people react to momentous things, rather than about them questioning why these rules exist at all.

But "Idomeneus," which keeps rewinding as if controlled by a broken remote, has both highly contemporary language and very few rules. The company of 15 actors plays a variety of characters and choruslike entities, constantly breaking into different groupings. Characters will do things, then change what they do and send events spiraling in an entirely new direction. It's a bit of a wonky and pretentious play, granted, and Schimmy ain't going to Broadway any time soon with this. But "Idomeneus" is distinctive, smart and, in its best bits, emotionally resonant.

Director Jonathan L. Green's production (using a translation by David Tushingham) has its arch spots where it feels as if we're dancing on the edge of comic parody of bad collegiate drama, but some of that is intentionally and, overall, the show generally has its collective head well screwed into place. This amount of choral speaking is tough to pull off, but these actors manage it with considerable flourish, teasing out the contemporary juice. And with the help of the designer Joe Schermoly, they have quite the lovely sand pit in which to play, replete with a Prairie style wooden structure.

Perhaps better than any other contemporary riff on classical drama (it recalls the work of Charles Mee in places), "Idomeneus" challenges notions of permanence. And, in so doing, it highlights the tension in the ancient world between reason and religion, sacrifice and selfishness, promises and forgiveness, all issues that haunt us still, especially in the political season.

Take, for example, Idomeneus' central dilemma. Poor guy, you think. Yet this same guy, and his colleagues, have just killed thousands of innocents. So why should his little after-the-fact problem take over our hearts? Yet in play after play from the classical world, such stories do. It takes some guts to lay bare such a pervasive disconnect.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Sept 23

Where: Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph St.

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Tickets: $25 at 800-838-3006 or sideshowtheatre.org