Theater in the Open has been messing with myth for three decades. It's what they do, they do it well, they always have. But when someone finally gets around to writing a proper history of the troupe, the company's current production, a dizzying, kaleidoscopic retelling of Jean-Paul Sartre's epic play "The Flies," will be one of the shows they will linger over. It's a startlingly original take on the French existential drama, blending chaos and pathos, one that finds the poetry and visual clarity in a difficult and sometimes tiresome work, one ultimately wrestled into submission by director Stephen Haley. No mean feat considering the nature of the beast. Because Sartre was a philosopher, not a playwright. A straight production of "The Flies" is a gabfest, about three full hours of audience-numbing blah blah blah about the absurdity of life — wonderful, thoughtful, perceptive blather, but treatise rather than drama, and one that doesn't really fly, so to speak, on stage. Not for the audience, anyhow. Yes, we are alone. There's no God, there's no Devil, to save us, to trick us. There's no transcendence, nothing beyond the immediate, what can be sensed. Meaning is illusion. We're condemned to live in freedom, free to curse the gods or blame the "other" political party or whatever evasion strategy is required or comfortable, but escape is not possible. Whatever is wrong can be left on our own doorstep — a terrible responsibility that we, naturally, ignore — especially, being Americans, when it taxes our attention span.
Essentially, the play retells the Electra story: Orestes and his sister Electra's plan to murder their mother and stepfather in retaliation for killing their father, the king of Argos, with Sartre punching up the myth with existential themes. Haley, probably best known for his explorations of the equally bleak, but, thankfully, far more reticent Samuel Becket, has slashed the philosophical one-upsmanship of the work, creating a vivid, stripped-down show that runs just under an hour. And, strange as it may seem, considering the play's legendary verbosity, this production does not rely on the text for its power. It's visual, it's aural. The hierarchy of Haley's exegesis is image, sound, word. By the time you get to text, to words spoken by characters, the point has already been made. Which is a good thing, because about half the the show takes place underground, literally, in an old root cellar built into a hill at Maudslay State Park, looking and feeling like a crypt. It's cool, dark and disorienting, it's an echo chamber that swallows up much of the dialogue, as the words bounce off the walls, to which the audience clings for safety as the confrontation between the gods and man, between groupthink and individuality, freedom and responsibility, takes place — and it all takes place in the dark, with the actors and the flies swarming in a brilliant, if unseen, choreography, faces illuminated, hellishly, by flashlights. It's the netherworld, it's hell, it's death, and when it ends, it feels like a dream, a feverish night terror, which leaves you sapped, yet oddly sanguine.
The all-star cast includes Bonnie-Jean Wilbur, Paul Wann, Edward Speck, Scott Smith, Beth Randall, Kelly Knight, Catherine Colby, with Theater in the Open apprentices filling out the ensemble.
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Theater in the Open's will stage Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Flies" at 4 p.m. Aug. 13 and 14 at Maudslay State Park. The show is free. There is a $2 fee for parking. Allow 15 minutes to walk to the play site. Follow the flags. For more information, call 978-465-2572 or log onto theaterinthe open.org