It began in early 2007 with the fourth-year actors of Group 36, and a compilation by John Barton and Kenneth Cavander of three Greek plays titled The Greeks, Part One: The War, the first part of a trilogy (encompassing a total of 10 plays in three evenings of theater). Frequent Juilliard director Brian Mertes was tapped by Jim Houghton, then the brand-new artistic director of the Drama Division, and Richard Feldman, the associate artistic director, to helm the production. Mertes assembled a crack team of designers and went to work. Little did he know, in the early days of the prep work for the piece, that, when he would present his ideas for the production to the division, they would so stimulate those in the room that Houghton would inquire about Mertes’s interest in directing the remaining seven plays over the next two years. “I was like, ‘Yeah, of course, I want to do it …,” remembers Mertes; “that’s a no-brainer. I would do that immediately.” There was still a lot to be worked out logistically, but by the end of that year, it was official: Juilliard would stage the remaining portions of the trilogy. The Greeks, Part Two: The Murders was staged the following year with Group 37, and now, this month, the cycle reaches its long-awaited conclusion with The Greeks, Part Three: The Gods, featuring the actors of Group 38.
The aesthetic world of The Greeks provides many challenges for the actors involved. Beyond merely acting in the four plays of the production, the performers sing and play (on various musical instruments) nearly 30 songs, and perform many hip-hop influenced dances (choreographed by Drama Division alumnus Jesse J. Perez). Beyond that, Mertes’s rehearsal style is unlike any other the actors have experienced, and Mertes pushes his actors to explore the outer limits of what they can do. “I like impossible things,” he says. “Doing the impossible means that you can fail big. Where else do you want to take those chances, but in this kind of situation? It’s great for [the students] to have that … I also think that failure is a key ingredient to stuff that really lasts.”
In rehearsal, Mertes asks his actors to explore a world without character or given circumstance, and focus on the physicality and raw power of themselves and the story. As audience members from the past two years can attest, this approach has created an intriguing and shocking style filled with intense imagery and movement. For the actors involved, it makes for an interesting learning experience filled with experimentation, struggle, frustration, joy, rage, and excitement in which the director gives the actors a playground of freedom to explore their impulses and how their bodies tell the story. In rehearsals, things change wildly every day, with elements being cut, added, created, and destroyed in a heartbeat, keeping all involved on their creative toes. But by the time the production opens, the audience is guaranteed a visceral theatrical experience.
If one were to step into the Stephanie P. McClelland Drama Theater during rehearsals (something Mertes encourages and welcomes), what someone would see might be a bit of a surprise: hundreds of unusual props stacked on industrial shelving or strewn around the floor, with a full rock band in the background and graffiti covering the back wall of the theater. What one might not realize is the significance of these items. The fact that this is the end of a three-year project is important, explains Mertes, “because we’re treating a lot of what appear to be really random objects” in such a way that might confuse some who haven’t seen the first two parts. Their significance, he says, lies in the fact “that all of the items that are present have been used in the previous years … they all carry a meaning that may not be apparent.”
Working on this final chapter of The Greeks has been an exciting project for Mertes, for many reasons beyond merely the completion of such a mammoth task. One thing that has brought him much satisfaction is his relationship with the actors of Group 38. “I know Group 38 the best,” he explains, “because they have been in the rehearsals from the first year.” Also exhilarating to Mertes is the fact that the actors of Group 38 have known the project was ahead of them since 2007. “I have never heard of that happening in a training program, ever,” he says. “I don’t know that it has ever been done, where, in the second year of the program, you know what you are going to be doing as your final project.”
For those who have not seen the first two parts of the trilogy, its arc follows the trials of the mythical House of Atreus and the endless cycles of bloodguilt and retribution according to the ancient system of “eye-for-an-eye” justice. Part I began before the Trojan War. King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to gain the wind to carry his ships to Troy, where his brother Menelaus’s wife, Helen, had been stolen. The arc of the plays continue through the 10 years of the Trojan War, showing the journey of the warrior Achilles and the fall of Troy. Part II (offered last season) picked up with the aftermath of the war and the plight of the Trojan refugees, including the fallen Trojan Queen Hecuba. At this point in the trilogy, midway through the second part, we enter the most famous Greek dramas of all time, known as the Oresteia, a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus. King Agamemnon returns from Troy victorious, but his wife, Clytemnestra, has been planning her revenge for the death of their daughter Iphigenia, and as soon as she can, she snares her husband and murders him. Two of Clytemnestra’s surviving children, Electra and Orestes, exact their revenge upon their mother, killing her and her lover. Before they can enjoy their success, however, conscience and guilt sets in upon Orestes in the form of the Furies (the god-like personifications of the anger of the dead), who drive him to madness. All is resolved in the final chapter, peace finally comes to the house of Atreus—and director Brian Mertes, after three years, can finally get some well deserved rest.